WASHINGTON — In a building full of acting officials, the clock is ticking on one in particular.
Lisa Hershman formally became acting chief management officer on Dec. 1, 2018, after Jay Gibson was forced out of the position. Per the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, Hershman has 210 days to be nominated for the CMO job; otherwise her tenure in the acting position will end. And per the Pentagon’s calendar, her clock runs out on June 29, 2019 — less than a month from now.
The CMO position was created by Congress during a round of recent reforms, and it was elevated to the No. 3 job in the department’s chain of command. Capitol Hill’s intention was to empower the CMO to find efficiencies inside the Pentagon.
Gibson, according to sources, failed to do that quickly enough and was thus replaced by Hershman, who had been previously confirmed as the deputy CMO.
Under the vacancies act, if an individual acting in a position is nominated for that position, they can continue to serve while the nomination process in ongoing. But Hershman’s situation is complicated thanks to an odd collection of specific circumstances.
In November 2018, the deputy CMO was designed “first assistant to CMO,” a technical change that comes with a wrinkle. Per Pentagon spokesman Heather Babb: “Ms. Hershman had not served as first assistant to the CMO for at least 90 of the 365 days preceding Dec. 1, 2018, precluding her from continuing to serve as acting CMO if she is nominated for the CMO position.”
However, Babb added, “when there can no longer be an acting CMO due to the time restrictions or other limitations resulting from the act, Ms. Hershman could continue to perform the duties of CMO as the deputy chief management officer except for the ‘excusive’ or ‘statutory’ duties of the CMO.”
“These are duties that by law or regulation the CMO and only the CMO may perform. We are aware of no such duties,” Babb added.
In layman’s terms: If the Senate does not receive a nomination for Hershman June 29, she will have to stop serving as acting CMO. Should she receive that nomination, she can continue to serve in the acting capacity, but with technically limited powers that, in reality, won’t impact her ability to do her job.
Should she not receive that nomination by the magic date, she resumes being the deputy CMO, with more limited powers than the acting CMO would have, which could potentially slow down the Pentagon as it attempts to drive reforms in the wake of its first-ever audit. Yet another wrinkle: if Hershman receives a nomination after June 29, she is barred from serving as acting while waiting confirmation and has to stay as deputy.
By all accounts, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would like to keep her in the role, with one source familiar with Shanahan’s thinking saying the acting secretary is “strongly supportive of Hershman and is eager to see her nomination go forward.”
But throughout its term, the Trump administration has been slow in delivering nominations to the Senate, much to the annoyance of members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A case in point: Shanahan’s own nomination for the full secretary role has yet to be delivered to the Senate, even though President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate the former Boeing executive on May 9.
While committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has made it clear he will try to quickly move along Shanahan’s nomination once it is received, there are only a few more working weeks before Congress leaves for its summer recess. Inhofe also expressed his desire to reporters multiple times that the president speed up his selection of middle-management picks.
There has been no movement to nominate someone for the full deputy secretary of defense job, although it is widely expected that David Norquist, the department comptroller who has been acting in that deputy position, will be the nominee and cruise through the process.
Both those jobs outrank Hershman, and so they may be a greater priority for the White House.
Asked May 30 whether he has felt an impact inside the building from having so many acting officials in the Pentagon, Norquist said: “I haven’t seen it.”
“The core team is in place,” Norquist said, noting that both he and Hershman got a good view of how things operate in the department while in their original jobs. "The team works together very well. So I think that I have no doubt that we will continue to move forward on the mission as we go forward on this.”
Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.
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.