With the start of the 116th Congress comes changes to Congressional Committees. In the Senate, the Judiciary Committee—notable for its role in the confirmation of federal judicial nominees—will be undergoing significant changes on the Republican side. The committee, previously comprised of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, has seen retirements and changes in the partisan composition since the last Congress.
Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee decided not to run for reelection in 2018. These are Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who retired after 7 terms in the Senate, and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who retired after one term. Flake was notable as an anti-Trump figure in the Republican Party. He frequently spoke out against the President, and spent his last few months in office holding up Judiciary Committee confirmation votes on judicial nominees. This was part of an attempt to force a vote on a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being fired before completing his investigation. Before that, he was notable for temporarily halting the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh until the FBI conducted an investigation into allegations against the nominee for sexual assault. After the investigation found no evidence of such accusations, Flake ultimately voted Kavanaugh out of committee and voted to confirm him on the floor. With the departure of Flake from the Senate, it is expected that the Senate Judiciary Committee will be able to move through approving nominees quicker.
With the departure of Hatch from the Senate, his position as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee was left vacant. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) opted to vacate his position as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of taking over as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. While Grassley will remain a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) will now be the Chair. Graham has drawn a significant amount of support from conservatives in recent months as a result of his role in the Kavanaugh confirmation. During the process, Graham attacked Democrats for their handling of the allegations against Kavanaugh, calling the process an “unethical sham.” Over the course of Trump’s first two years in office, Graham has aligned himself more with the President, and has previously said “if I am fortunate enough to be selected by my colleagues to serve as chairman, I will push for the appointment and Senate confirmation of highly qualified conservative judges to the federal bench.” He is expected to help Republicans advance a litany of judicial nominees over the next two years.
The Republican Party’s gains in the Senate in the 2018 elections have resulted in a change in the partisan composition of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Prior to Republicans losing the Alabama Senate special election, there were 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats on the committee. That election, combined with Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate, resulted in Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) both being placed on the committee. Both being considered 2020 Presidential contenders, they used the position to amplify their national profile during the Kavanaugh hearings. There was speculation as to whether one of them would have to leave the committee following the Republicans’ gains in 2018, but the committee instead will be expanding. A list of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee was released by the Majority Leader’s office with 12 spots, meaning the Democrats can keep their 10 seats. This expansion, combined with the departure of 2 Republicans from the committee, leaves 3 vacancies which are being filled by new members.
Two of these vacancies will be filled by newly-elected Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA). These Senators will be the first Republican women to serve on the committee. There had been concerns about the lack of women on the committee for years, but these concerns were brought to the forefront with Kavanaugh’s hearings. Republicans were criticized for having a group of men investigate an allegation of sexual assault. Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) said after the confirmation that he would look for women who would be interested in joining the committee.
Both Senator Ernst and Senator Blackburn are stalwart conservatives and vocally pro-life. During Blackburn’s time in the House, she led a panel that investigated Planned Parenthood for allegations that it was profiting from selling fetal tissue. Ernst has been reliably pro-life during her time in the Senate and has supporter her home-state’s ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat at 6 weeks. Both Senators are expected to be reliable votes in favor of President Trump’s judicial nominees, and to be vocal supporters of pro-life nominees.
Josh Hawley (R-MO) will also be joining the committee. Hawley won his seat during the 2018 elections, defeating incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). Prior to his election, he was Attorney General of Missouri for 2 years. During this time, he gained a reputation of going after big tech companies. He conducted an investigation into Google’s data collection practices, among other things, to determine if they violated state laws. He also subpoenaed Facebook for similar reasons. He is expected to use his new position on the Committee for similar investigations. He is also expected to be a reliable vote in favor of President Trump’s judicial nominees.
These changes to the Senate Judiciary Committee have the potential to speed up the confirmation process for the next two years. Dozens of spots remain open on the lower courts, and there is speculation that Justice Thomas may retire before the Presidential election so his replacement can be named by a Republican. With a Democratic House for the next 2 years, Senate Republicans will be poised to confirm more executive and judicial nominees, instead of passing anymore significant legislation.