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What is a Blue Slip in the United States Senate?

Instructor: Kristi Tyler

Kristi is a practicing attorney who focuses on criminal and juvenile law.

In this lesson, we will explore the meaning of a blue slip in the United States Senate. Specifically, we will define 'blue slip' and discuss its history and use throughout the years.

What is a Blue Slip?

Suppose you meet your friend, Tom, for dinner after work. He looks disheartened during the meal and then tells you, ''I got a pink slip at work today.'' You, like others who hear that term, quickly realize that Tom was dismissed, or fired, from his job. The term stems from days past when an employer terminated a worker by placing a pink slip of paper in the envelope along with the worker's paycheck.

Now, let's suppose that Tom is a friend of yours who happens to serve as a United States Senator. He tells you over dinner, ''I got a blue slip today.'' Would you know what that means? Like the ''pink slip,'' the ''blue slip'' has a history that stems from long ago. Let's explore the history of the blue slip, along with its current use in the United States Senate today.

Definition

A blue slip refers to two separate legislative traditions in the United States Congress. A blue slip in the House refers to an altogether different process than a blue slip in the Senate. This article focuses on the Senate's use of the blue-slip process.

Seal of the United States Senate.
Senate Seal

In the Senate, a blue slip is a form given to a state senator to write his opinion about a federal judicial nominee from his home state. The use of the blue slip is not part of the official Senate rules. Rather, it is an informal practice that began in 1917 during the 65th Congress. The first blue slip is believed to have been created by Senator Culberson of Texas, who was then the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

During the first 27 years of its use, the slip was handed to senators on a small piece of blue paper, which soon became known as the blue slip. Today, a blue form is used to request the senator's opinion, but the term ''blue slip'' remains.

After a senator has received a blue slip, he has three options. He can return the blue slip with favorable comments; return the blue slip with objections; or, he can refuse to return the blue slip at all. Based on the senator's response, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary then determines how to proceed with a judicial nominee.

Let's further explore the use and effect of a blue slip.

Use of the Blue Slip

Throughout the years, the use of the blue slip has varied. At the beginning of each Congress, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee sets blue slip policy. The policy usually changes when the majority party of the Senate changes. In some years, a negative blue slip has prevented future action on a nominee, while in other years, it has not. Let's take a look at these differences.

From 1917 through 1955, a negative blue slip would not automatically veto a judicial nomination. The nomination would still go before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Blue slip dated 1917. This was the first time a blue slip was used to object to a judicial nominee.
blue slip

However, from 1956 to 1978, this changed. If a home-state senator returned a negative blue slip, or if he failed to return the blue slip at all, no further action was taken on a nominee.

From 1979 to 1989, a number of significant changes were made to blue slip policy. First, if a home-state senator refused to return a blue slip, the nomination did not die. Instead, the entire committee voted on whether to proceed. No longer could one senator's inaction stop a nomination.

Use of the blue slip changed again from mid-1989 to mid-2001. During that time, if both state senators returned a negative blue slip, then the nomination stalled. However, if only one senator objected, his objection would not halt the nominee's consideration. Rather, the objection would be a factor to be weighed.

From the later half of 2001 to 2003, changes were again made when party leadership changed. During this time, a judicial nominee would only advance if both home-state senators returned favorable blue slips.

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