WASHINGTON — The Trump administration's Pentagon team is slowly taking shape, with 27 non-career spots, including that of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, now being filled by new appointees — but a significant number of spots remain open.
In response to an inquiry from Defense News, Michael Rhodes, director of administration for the Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, said 27 empty jobs have been filled as of Feb. 13. In addition, there are 16 holdovers from the Obama administration, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and the three acting secretaries of the military departments.
Each administration sets the number of political appointees, but for comparison, the Obama administration had 160 political slots in the Pentagon at the time of the transition. Put another way, roughly 75 percent of political appointee jobs inside the Department of Defense remains vacant three weeks into the Trump administration.
How much of an impact that has on day-to-day operations, however, is unclear. While some worry that the open positions could create roadblocks to important planning and development initiatives such as the next budget or the Nuclear Posture Review ordered by Trump in his first week in office, others point out that the DoD is uniquely suited to deal with a lack of political appointees thanks to a strong civilian workforce and uniformed leadership.
In the latter camp is Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and former staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said the Pentagon "is very different that some of the domestic agencies like [the Environmental Protection Agency] and Labor [Department] where the incoming Administration has major policy changes they want to effect and you need confirmed people throughout to make these changes occur.
"That is not the case in the Pentagon as Secretary Mattis can direct the changes that are required prior to being fully staffed and those below his level will obey," Punaro added. "DOD is not missing a beat. They will get the supplemental to OMB; they will complete the FY 18 budget in a timely fashion; they will conduct the reviews of OSD organizations and military strategy and other requirements from the NDAA."
The Pentagon declined to make available the names of those appointees or what spots were specifically filled, with department spokesman Johnny Michael saying "there isn't a list, however, for those 27, who are GS-15 or below, and do not hold titles beyond their day-to-day job duties."
Of the more than 50 Senate confirmable spots, only Mattis has even had a hearing, let alone a vote. That is a concern to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who said he wished President Donald Trump’s team would put forward more names, even while blaming Democratic opposition for the use of stalling tactics in the confirmation process.
Late last month, Army secretary nominee Vincent Viola abruptly withdrew his name from consideration over business entanglements, while Air Force secretary pick Heather Wilson and Navy secretary pick Philip Bilden were only recently named.
McCain has told reporters he wants the administration to nominate senior Pentagon nominees "as soon as possible" so the Senate committee can consider them. The Arizona Republican specifically called out the deputy secretary and under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics jobs as one he feels are "key."
When it comes to the Senate confirmable spots, Punaro notes the timetable between nominations and confirmations has increased "steadily" since the days of the Kennedy administration, saying it is now normal to take nine to 10 months for candidates at the lower-level positions to get confirmed.
"As was the case with Viola, I always recommend following a conservative approach and not rushing recruiting, vetting and confirmation, because if you short-cut any of this and something pops when the nomination is being actively considered in the SASC, then it adds months to the process and perhaps the nominee does not make it," Punaro said. "Viola was handled correctly and in my view also the two who have been named to the services."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.