WASHINGTON ― Of 60 positions at the Pentagon that must be confirmed by the Senate, more than one third are unfilled, and time is running out for the Trump administration on the Senate’s abbreviated, election-year calendar.
With the Senate Armed Services Committee facing a busy schedule and Senate floor time a scarce commodity, the prospects for filling top-level jobs at the Pentagon is slowly dwindling. Adding urgency, Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Service Committee, said that too many beleaguered civil servants are doing the work of political appointees.
“If the administration moves quickly, I would recommend we move to accommodate and try to get the hearings done to get the nominees through,” Reed, D-R.I, said in a hallway interview Thursday. “They have to send the nominees up before we can even consider them, so the ball is in their court.”
Asked if the White House should hurry up with nominees, SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said, “They need to do it. They’ve been encouraged by everyone I can think of.”
In Capitol Hill testimony this week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted it has become challenging to find candidates in the final year of President Donald Trump’s term and that the process has dragged for candidates it has found. “And we also have challenges with moving people through the process. These are long processes,” Esper said. "I don’t think the situation is as dire as some may think.”
But Reed expressed concern that the civilian vacancies would further tilt the balance of power between civilian and military leadership at the Defense Department toward uniformed officers. The recent firing of John Rood as undersecretary of defense for policy left a total of seven vacancies in the policy directorate.
“These vacancies continue to challenge the department's ability to effectively respond to national security challenges and undermine civilian inputs into the decision-making process,” Reed told Esper.
Meanwhile, the panel is set to hold a confirmation hearing Tuesday for Matthew Donovan to be undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, William Jordan Gillis to be assistant secretary of defense for sustainment and Victor Mercado to be assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities.
No hearing date has been set for Kenneth “K.J.” Braithwaite as Navy secretary, whose official paperwork was submitted by the White House to the Senate only this week.
On March 2, Trump announced his intent to nominate James Anderson to be deputy under secretary of defense for policy and Kathryn Wheelbarger to be the deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence and security. However, the White House has yet to submit them to the Senate―a part of the process that has often dragged for this administration.
On Feb. 13, SASC advanced James McPherson to be undersecretary of the Army and Charles Williams to be an assistant secretary of the Navy for installations, energy and the environment. They’ve since been added to the executive calendar where more than 40 others, across multiple agencies, are waiting for time for a Senate floor vote.
Behind all of those known officials, there are nine more names in the pipeline to an official nomination at DoD, according to Esper.
‘It’s the calendar, stupid.’
The Trump administration’s process for vetting nominees has been notoriously slow, but there has been some high-profile tumult in recent days.
After Trump hired in February a new chief for the Presidential Personnel Office, John McEntee, came reports that McEntee was emphasizing loyalty to the president in the hiring process and purging officials he deems disloyal.
Trump’s pick to help lead the Pentagon’s personnel office, J. David Patterson, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration last month after a controversial, anti-immigrant opinion piece he wrote in 2017 began circulating on Capitol Hill. Donovan has since been tapped for that slot.
Trump announced on March 2 that he was withdrawing the nomination of Elaine McCusker, who had questioned his temporary freeze of military aid to Ukraine, for the post of Pentagon comptroller.
Beyond those specific cases, the Senate’s recent disharmony on nominations and its election-year calendar full of short days and recesses are the primary enemies of speedy nominations to DoD and beyond, according to former SASC staff director and Marine general Arnold Punaro.
“It’s not the Senate’s fault or the committee’s fault. It’s the calendar, stupid,” Punaro said.
Though the Senate generally operates by unanimous consent, the trend has been for senators to refuse easy up-or-down votes, forcing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold “cloture” votes to overrule them and get to a final vote. Under Senate rules, it takes 51 votes to invoke cloture.
When the leader files cloture on a nomination, it has to lie over for two Senate calendar days. When the Senate is in and a cloture is filed on Monday for example, senators can vote on Wednesday. If it’s filed on a Friday when they are in session, it ripens on the following Tuesday.
If cloture is approved, the rules require 30 hours of post-cloture debate, essentially four full days. But because the Senate’s week during an election-year accommodates more time for senators to campaign at home, a typical week in the upper chamber begins late Monday and ends early Thursday. That means that unless there’s an unanimous agreement to limit debate, a single nomination could stretch over two weeks.
This is the environment in which Veronica Daigle, assistant secretary of defense for readiness, was nominated in January, 2019, and was only confirmed in June. After all that, Daigle left at the end of January, leaving a career civil servant to fill the assistant secretary role on an acting basis.
Though it’s unlikely, Punaro said, that cloture would be invoked in all cases, the calendar still doesn’t leave much wiggle room. The Senate will be out of session for ten weeks total between this week and early October, when the Senate leaves town for the November election.
Those dynamics put pressure on McConnell, who has to decide which nominees to prioritize within the time available, Punaro said. By Punaro’s reckoning, DoD confirmations compare favorably with other agencies, which are also waiting to be fully staffed.
These dynamics also put pressure on Inhofe to move quickly when the White House does send over a nomination. The committee’s schedule will be dominated for the next few weeks by hearings reviewing the Pentagon’s budget proposal, leaving windows in late April or early May before the committee begins its markup for its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
If the White House does make more nominations, SASC will make the time to hold hearings, Punaro predicted.
“The Pentagon and Armed Services Committee will do triple backflips to get this done,” he said.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.