WASHINGTON – The Senate on Sunday adjourned for the monthlong August recess without confirming any of the 12 Defense Department nominees that have become log-jammed in the Senate amid Republican holds.
The nominees include key Defense Department positions such as the inspector general, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, an acquisitions official and another who would oversee industrial policy.
“It leaves big gaps, particularly in many of the key acquisition positions,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News. “And of course, it takes away time from other people who have to fill in.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has blocked unanimous consent requests on the Senate floor for most of these otherwise noncontroversial nominees as part of his year-long hold on confirming all Pentagon and State Department nominees in protest of the administration’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
And Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, announced a hold last month on the three nominees in the Armed Services Committee who would work on defense acquisitions and industrial base policy.
Sullivan placed the holds in protest of the Biden administration s decision to stall Alaska’s Ambler Mining District industrial access road, which he said would inhibit the mining of critical minerals – a market where China’s domination has created several vulnerabilities in the defense supply chain.
“This decision was a huge setback for our domestic critical mineral supply chains, really undermining our national security,” Sullivan said last month. “I haven’t been able to get answers from anybody in the Pentagon or at the Department of the Interior.”
The nominees that Sullivan has held over in committee include Radha Plumb as deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment and Laura Taylor-Kale as assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy. He is also holding Brendan Owens as assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment.
Sullivan called all three nominees “well-qualified” but vowed to keep the holds in place until the Biden administration answers his queries as to why it blocked the industrial access road for the Ambler Mining District.
“One of the discoveries we’ve made – that everyone’s made – is that our industrial base is not as strong as we thought it was,” said Reed.
The Hawley Blockade
Reed went on the Senate floor last month in an attempt to confirm three other key Defense Department nominees by unanimous consent, only for Hawley to stymie his efforts.
Hawley’s objection to Reed’s request blocked the confirmation of Robert Storch to serve as the Defense Department’s inspector general – a key post that has not had a Senate-confirmed official since January 2016. Hawley also blocked Reed from confirming Tia Johnson as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and Russell Rumbaugh as the Navy comptroller.
“I have always said that it is better for national security and for our country to have Senate-confirmed officials leading the Department of Defense,” James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, told Defense News. “Every member has a right to ask for a vote, and it’s up to the Majority Leader to schedule those votes, so of course I’d like to see those votes happen soon.”
Byzantine Senate procedures ensure that floor votes eat up hours or even days of valuable floor time that can slow-walk the majority party’s agenda. This makes the majority party reluctant to use precious floor time on noncontroversial, lower-level nominees that would typically pass with bipartisan unanimous consent requests.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., did schedule a floor vote in May for Christopher Lowman to serve as the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment – a position deemed particularly vital given its role in overseeing Ukraine aid delivery logistics.
The Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Lowman to the post 94-1. Hawley was the lone no vote after blocking several requests to confirm Lowman by unanimous consent in the months before the floor vote.
Hawley first insisted he would keep his holds in place until Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken resign over the Afghanistan withdrawal.
In recent months, he has scaled back his ultimatum and now says he will lift the hold in exchange for a public hearing on last year’s Abbey Gate attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 American service members and more than 160 Afghan civilians.
“We need to have a hearing in public – not behind closed doors, not closed press – we at a minimum need to have a hearing on CENTCOM’s report on the Abbey Gate disaster,” Hawley told Defense News. “And we need to have the principals testify.”
Reed has pushed back against scheduling such a hearing, noting that the Senate has held a combined total of seven public and private hearings since the withdrawal and that the Fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act mandates quarterly briefings on the security situation in Afghanistan. But Hawley remains unsatisfied.
“They don’t want to talk about the withdrawal,” said Hawley. “They don’t want any public accountability. They will do it behind closed doors, but they don’t want any public accountability.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.