Democrats Damaged by NJ Senate’s Refusal to Confirm Gov. Murphy’s Cabinet

Gov. Phil Murphy. Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Nothing good will come to New Jersey Democrats as a result of the Democratic State Senate blocking the nominees of the Democratic governor.

The checks and balances between two parties controlling each branch of government can be a positive thing, but when the public so resoundingly elects one party to govern, legislative gridlock makes Democrats look disingenuous and disorganized. Promises made to the public must be kept and personal differences among Democratic Party leaders must be put aside to do so.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s cabinet appointees are among the most diverse in the state’s history and come with impressive credentials. However, to permanently assume their positions, they need to be confirmed by the New Jersey Senate.

Confirmation of Cabinet Nominees

Under the New Jersey Constitution, the secretary of state, attorney general and state treasurer and the heads of state agencies are appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate before taking office.

First, the nominee must clear the Senate Judiciary Committee, which may require the nominee to answer both written and oral questions as part of the “interview” process. If the committee approves a nominee, the appointment goes to the full Senate, which has the final say.

Even with Democrats controlling both chambers of the legislature, confirmation of Murphy’s nominees is proceeding more slowly than those during the administration of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. In many cases, the unwritten rules, based on custom, are responsible for the roadblocks.

For instance, the practice of senatorial courtesy gives state senators the power to block appointees from their districts. Honoring this courtesy requires other senators to refuse to confirm an appointee, unless the senators from the home district have first voiced their approval.

Often, the use of senatorial courtesy has nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominee.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Tahesha Way had her confirmation held up by Republican Senator Kristin Corrado. While the senator said that she supported Way for the position, she wanted to have a sit-down conversation prior to the vote. Way was eventually confirmed.

Political Holdup for Education Officials 

Lamont Repollet, who Murphy tapped to serve as education commissioner, and Zakiya Smith Ellis, who was appointed to be the new secretary of higher education, have still not yet been confirmed. While both nominees have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate President Steve Sweeney recently pulled the nominations from the Senate board list.

According to Sweeney, Repollet and Ellis have failed to show they are ready to act immediately to revamp the school funding formula and address other pressing issues facing the New Jersey educational system.

“The Senate President has concerns about the lack of responsiveness by the administration on the signature issues of school funding and college affordability. These top officials in the Murphy administration are responsible for adopting the reforms needed to provide full and fair funding for New Jersey’s schools and for following through on the bills to help make college more affordable,” said Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Sweeney. “We haven’t seen or heard the level of willingness needed to make progress on these major priorities. We have worked hard on these policies, and we can’t allow the opportunity to put them in place to be lost or delayed by inaction.”

When asked about Sweeney’s decision, Gov. Murphy took the high road, focusing on the qualifications of his appointees rather than the alleged political feud.

“There’s no reason not to confirm these folks… Folks need to look up Lamont Repollet and Zakiya Smith Ellis because we have two African-American Ph.D.s in our nominated Cabinet,” he said. “It is the most diverse Cabinet ever nominated in our state, and it’s the most diverse Cabinet in the country.”

The Senate confirmation process traditionally forces compromise between the legislative and executive branch of government. Compromise is a a good thing when the governor’s party is not the majority party in the state legislature.

However, when there is deadlock when the same party controls both branches of government, it only weakens the party in power—in this case, the Democratic Party.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck—read his full bio here.

Democrats Damaged by NJ Senate’s Refusal to Confirm Gov. Murphy’s Cabinet