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Fear of DoD struggles grow, amid vacancy levels not seen for 50 years

May 27, 2017 (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Pro-defense lawmakers have grown frustrated at how slowly the White House is moving to fill dozens of top-tier posts at the Pentagon, warning that vacancies are hamstringing efforts to advance the president’s national security agenda.

The administration has advanced 13 of U.S. President Donald Trump’s picks for the Pentagon’s civilian leadership to the Senate, which has 53 key jobs requiring Senate confirmation. The Senate has confirmed five — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson had been confirmed by the Senate and three mid-tier nominees — had been confirmed by the Senate as of May 25.

Trump’s total for civilian DoD nominees sent to the Senate is just over half the number President Barack Obama had sent by this point in his first term, according to data compiled by Defense News. By this time in their first terms, President George W. Bush had sent 17, President Bill Clinton had sent 16, President George H.W. Bush had sent 10 and President Ronald Reagan had sent 15.

This mirrors a larger trend for Trump. Of more than 500 key executive branch positions, Trump has only formally nominated 98 candidates, of which 36 were confirmed, according to data compiled by the Partnership for Public Policy. By this time, Obama had nominated 225, W. had 202, Clinton 205 and H.W. had 144.

“It’s hard to start a game when your whole team isn’t on the field, and each of the positions in these agencies have different roles,” said Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at the partnership. “DoD has announced a deputy secretary, and a lot of agencies don’t have somebody in that role. That’s somebody who’s going to serve as the chief operating officer for the agency. These people are managing very large and complex agencies.”

The White House Transition Project has also dinged Trump for the fewest nominations and fewest confirmations in a president’s first 100 days in 50 years. Of 72 critical national security positions, Trump had 14 filled, whereas Obama had 24 in the same period.

Arnold Punaro, a retired U.S. Marine general and former staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Trump administration is not to be faulted. Growing scrutiny and red tape for key nominees has fueled growth in the time to confirmation — from three and a half months under President John F. Kennedy to nine months under Obama. 

“I don’t buy that what we’re seeing with this administration is much different from the past two administrations,” Punaro said. “The overall trend is it takes longer.”

Behind the scenes, Punaro argues, the White House is much, much further along in its vetting than it can publicly acknowledge. “There’s a substantial, larger number in the pipeline, moving through at a normal pace, and that to me is encouraging,” he said.

It’s unclear when Trump will have his service secretaries confirmed. Clinton in 1993 saw his Navy secretary clear the Senate on July 1, his Air Force secretary July 22 and his Army secretary on Nov. 22.

The more senior Bush moved slowly at first, but he brought in a Pentagon staffer to expedite nomination paperwork full-time, worked closely with the SASC and used judge advocates to assist the White House counsel’s office — a natural chokepoint given the breadth of issues it encounters.

“Administrations who will take the extra help, it tends to move faster, while administrations that don’t, it goes at the same glacial pace,” Punaro said. “[The SASC] set a hearing day every Wednesday morning, so if they could get a guy done, he’s got a hearing date.”

Fast-forward to the present day, where SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have both lamented that Mattis cannot steer the gargantuan Department of Defense appropriately without a full crew of Trump picks approved by the Senate.

McCain, who joined the Senate in 1987, affirmed Trump “has been more slow” than past administrations in offering nominees to the committee. The problem is not only having the people in the Pentagon for SASC staffers and lawmakers to talk to, but without Senate confirmation, acting officials simply lack authority to do their jobs.

“We're not getting people to implement the new administration’s policies and strategies,” McCain told Defense News on May 17. “That's the problem. You hire a team who is with you philosophically and to actively pursue the agenda. If someone is in an acting position, no matter how great their integrity, they just don't have the same kind of influence the way a regularly appointed member of the team does.”

Thornberry months ago made the case  holdovers from the Obama administration, which underfunded military readiness, cannot be relied upon to bring new urgency. But as the process has dragged out, he suggested at a press conference earlier this month that the nation’s security is at risk.

“We need to have good nominees and we need to have them in place because, just to emphasize, the world is not waiting on us to get our act together, and the Pentagon is the most complex, the largest government agency, it needs leadership,” Thornberry said.

There are some signs of a thaw. On May 25, several of Trump’s nominees received Senate confirmation by unanimous consent: David Norquist to be comptroller; Kari Bingen to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Robert Karem to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

There has been a notable delay for Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s pick for deputy secretary of defense, the No. 2 spot in the Pentagon. Two months after Trump announced Shanahan, his name has not formally advanced to the SASC. McCain, earlier this month, suggested Shanahan’s industry ties may be slowing the process. “We’d certainly like to move forward with him, he’s got an excellent reputation,” McCain said.

Ethics rules meant to safeguard against self-dealing are particularly relevant at the DoD, which stewards billions of taxpayer dollars. DoD and the SASC have strict rules that bar presidential picks from owning stocks and bonds in companies that have Defense Department contracts.

Army secretary nominee Vincent Viola and Navy secretary nominee Philip Bilden, both financiers, withdrew their names from consideration over business entanglements. The second Army secretary nominee Mark Green withdrew amid accusations he’d made anti-gay and anti-Muslim remarks. 

To Punaro’s reckoning, the bar set by the Office of Government Ethics is too high, and should be updated to reflect modern compensation patterns, like deferred income and restricted stocks. The SASC and Pentagon should be more flexible about letting officials recuse themselves from potential conflicts—instead of letting them disqualify candidates.

“A lot of the standards were put in, in the 1970s,” Punaro said. “It makes no sense.”

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