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On a related note, students at the military academies are nominated by individual senators and congressmen. Upon graduation, Congress passes a law to commission the new officers. (from a recent answer on Politics.SE)

While that fact isn't new to me, reading that post I realized that I am wholly unfamiliar with the rationale for such a system.

Why is it that civilian politicians are given the power to nominate cadets to military academies? That seems wholly outside the purvue of legislature, or politicians in the first place.

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    "Congress passes a law to commission": Military officers are commissioned by the president with the advice and consent of the senate. There's no legislation, and the house of representatives is not involved.
    – phoog
    Dec 3, 2020 at 1:05

3 Answers 3

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If not them, then who? If all the nominations were made by the military, then a charismatic leader could dominate the nominations and take de facto control of the military. If all the nominations were made by the President, then the President could build up a military loyal to him. Putting most of the nominations under control of Congress and distributed among all members means that people from all geographic locations have an opportunity to be nominated. Also, appointments will be made by members of all parties.

Realize that this system dates back to the founding, when George Washington most likely could have been king if he wanted. They wanted a military under civilian control. Requiring legislators to nominate candidates and approve their commissions after graduation keeps giving officers reason to be grateful to legislators. This is important, because the rest of their interactions are likely to involve the legislators blocking things that the officers want.

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    Um. Perhaps a dumb question, but why not applicants nominating themselves like you do with any normal educational institution?
    – user4012
    Mar 28, 2016 at 14:10
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    At a normal educational institution, there isn't a nomination process at all. "Applicants" are people who apply for their position; at the United States military academies, this application process involves soliciting the support of your congressperson. As stated in this answer, it is partly an issue of sovereignty, but as compared to other academic institutions, it's just like any other hurtle: Essays, SAT scores, GPA, letters of recommendation... There are many forms of proof that a prospective student is expected to furnish to demonstrate their excellence. This is one of them.
    – Eikre
    Mar 28, 2016 at 15:46
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    @Eikre but from a practical POV, either a) the representative does not know of the applicants and only can read the reports (and in this case, there is no need for a representative to do this task) or b) those with connections to the representative have an unfair advantage. Maybe in 1780 there were only 20 people who were educated, in the correct age range and white in any state, and all of them knew a representative because the only way to get an education was being from a rich family; but in the XXIst century it just looks strange.
    – SJuan76
    Apr 19, 2016 at 9:44
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    Representatives may not know the applicants before the process, but they have every chance to know them after the process. And that still doesn't address the problems with every other system: that they give power to the people making the decision. If not the elected representatives who already have all sorts of power, who should get it? You could make an objective formula from things like SAT scores and grades, but are those really the best predictors of success in the military? This isn't an education -- it's officer training. People wanting an education can go elsewhere more easily.
    – Brythan
    Apr 20, 2016 at 1:19
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    @Brythan - you're making an assumption that being able to get nominated by a congresscritter is a better predictor of success in the military than SAT scores (or specialized examinations tailored to the military)? That seems to be an assumption in giant need of proof, sorry.
    – user4012
    Dec 3, 2016 at 3:33
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Originally appointments were a way for congress to reward supporters by giving appointments to the supporters children, relatives, or friends.

Today most in congress use various competitive exams to determine who to give appointments to.

Being nominated does not guarantee acceptance into the academies.

There are also some special categories such the children of Medal of Honor winners getting automatic admittance.

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  • There are also some special categories [] getting automatic admittance. Not so, "may be appointed". See, 10 U.S. Code § 7442 (b) and (c) for the USMA. They do not need a "nomination"; but must meet other requirements. Furthermore, the number of appointments is limited.
    – Rick Smith
    Aug 5 at 18:21
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Q: Why is it that civilian politicians are given the power to nominate cadets to military academies? That seems wholly outside the purvue of legislature, or politicians in the first place.

After single-member districts "became the norm", Congress decided to "democratize and diversify the ranks of military officers" at West Point.

By 1842, single-member House districts had become the norm, with twenty-two states using single-member districts and only six using at-large multi-member districts. [Single-member district]

Congressional Nominations to U.S. Service Academies: An Overview and Resources for Outreach and Management, Page 1, Footnote 1.

Historical records indicate that the congressional nomination served to help democratize and diversify the ranks of military officers. Congressional nominations ensured that academy appointees represented all geographic areas of the United States, came from a diverse set of family backgrounds, and would not be subject to executive branch political patronage. See U.S. Congress, House Committee on Military Affairs, Military Academy, report to accompany Bill H.R. No. 367, 28th Cong., 1st sess., May 15, 1844, Rep. No. 476, pp. 14-16; U.S. Congress, House Committee on Military Affairs, West Point Academy, report to accompany Bill H.R. No. 444, 29th Cong., 1 sess., May 11, 1846, Rep. No. 660, p. 2.

In keeping with that diversity (page 5),

When a congressionally-nominated academy position is vacant, a Member of Congress may nominate 10 persons for possible appointment. As DOD service academy cadets or midshipmen who received a congressional nomination graduate, or as their appointments are otherwise terminated, a nominating Member office can make new nominations to fill any vacated positions. Typically, one appointment per DOD academy per Senator and Representative is available annually. In some years, however, a congressional office might have the opportunity to make nominations to fill multiple vacancies at an academy.

Today, the number of cadets at West Point and Colorado Springs, and midshipmen at Annapolis, is limited to 4400 for each academy. (See, 10 U.S. Code § 7442, 10 U.S. Code § 9442 and 10 U.S. Code § 8454, respectively.) About 3000 nominations may be made for each academy, but only about 1200 to 1300 appointments are made and about 1000 graduate each year.

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