WASHINGTON ― President-elect Joe Biden’s team has agreed that his pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III, will testify before the House Armed Services Committee as a prerequisite for a waiver to serve as the Pentagon’s top civilian, the panel’s chairman said Tuesday.
Echoing concerns in Congress about maintaining civilian control of the military, Rep. Adam Smith told MSNBC he “would prefer [the position] be a civilian person” but suggested his concerns were assuaged somewhat because the Biden team reached out to him and he obtained a commitment to have Austin appear before the committee.
Austin, who served in the Army for 41 years and was head of U.S. Central Command before he retired in 2016, must gain a waiver from Congress because of the prohibition against anyone serving as secretary of defense who has not been out of uniform for at least seven years.
Because the House has to vote on a waiver, “we ought to have the nominee before our committee, so that we can ask questions about his understanding of civilian control of the military, and to reassure ourselves,” said Smith, a Democrat from Washington.
Smith declined to predict whether the waiver would pass Congress, saying: “I wouldn’t prejudge that. I’m not going to prejudge what my colleagues are going to conclude.”
Biden has responded to the skepticism with an essay in The Atlantic that urged Congress to grant a waiver. Austin knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a military officer, Biden said.
Austin would be the first Black leader of the Pentagon, and the historic nature of the nomination, particularly in a year of extraordinary racial tension in the country, adds an intriguing dimension to the debate in Congress over one of the key members of Biden’s Cabinet.
After expressing a preference for former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy before word of Austin’s selection leaked, Smith issued new statement Tuesday, after Biden made the selection official, to praise Austin and his historic candidacy.
“The historic selection of General Austin as the first African American to lead the Department of Defense reinforces President-elect Biden’s promise to cultivate a leadership team that reflects the diverse composition of America’s society,” Smith said. “General Austin is a proven leader whom I respect a great deal, and who I am confident will make an excellent Secretary of Defense.”
Lawmakers have only made an exception to the rule twice: in 1950 for George Marshall; and in 2017, when Jim Mattis was nominated by then President-elect Donald Trump.
All but 36 House Democrats voted against the waiver for Mattis after the White House scuttled plans to have Mattis testify before the House Armed Services Committee. Smith, who cited civil-military balance concerns when calling for Mattis to testify four years ago, said this week he was similarly driven.
The Biden transition team did not respond to a request to confirm the agreement that Austin testify before the HASC.
“Secretary-designate Austin is looking forward to speaking with Congressional leadership early on, including House leadership, and both Senate and House Armed Service Committee members,” Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet, adding that Austin, “appreciates Congress’ role in considering this waiver.”
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.