Updated 2/23/21 at 9:40 pm EST with comment from an administration official.
WASHINGTON — A month after the inauguration of Joe Biden as president, nominations for dozens of top Pentagon jobs have yet to be announced — and it may be quite some time before those roles are filled with confirmed individuals.
Of the 61 Senate-confirmed roles at the Department of Department — known officially as presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation jobs, or PAS — only three nominations have been put forth. All three came in December, weeks before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Lloyd Austin was announced as the pick for defense secretary on Dec. 8, and his nomination was sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 19. He was confirmed Jan. 22. Kathleen Hicks was announced as the pick for deputy defense secretary on Dec. 30, and her nomination was sent to the committee on Jan. 20. She was confirmed Feb. 8.
Colin Kahl, announced alongside Hicks on Dec. 30 to be the undersecretary of defense for policy, had his nomination sent to the committee on Jan. 20. Kahl will have a confirmation hearing in the coming weeks, according to sources, but he may face headwinds from Republicans on the committee. On Tuesday night, a spokesman for SASC ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., warned that Inhofe has “serious concerns with some of the policy positions” Kahl has taken in the past.
Otherwise, there has been silence on nominees, both at the DoD and at other national security agencies such as the National Nuclear Security Administration, located within the Energy Department.
“Given the speed with which they announced the top tier, I was expecting them to fill out the rest of the roster more quickly,” said Kori Schake, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration who now works at the American Enterprise Institute.
Speaking on background, a senior administration official told Defense News that the delay in confirming Biden’s electoral win, formally known as ascertainment, has set the administration behind on the process.
“Because of the delay in ascertainment and other factors, the FBI was been delayed for over a month in conducting background investigations for our nominees, which is a prerequisite before SASC will full process nominations,” the official said.
‘It’s hardly a normal working environment’
While Austin and Hicks were able to receive quick confirmations, the months delay for Kahl may be a sign that the overall nomination process for future nominees will get pushed farther down the road than is usually the case. That, in turn, may lead the Biden team to delay nominations on smaller DoD roles while focusing on nominees for other top jobs across the government.
Across the entire Biden administration, 58 individuals have been nominated for the roughly 1,250 Senate-confirmed spots as tracked by the Partnership for Public Service, according to Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former defense official who is now vice president of research and evaluation with the organization. That’s more nominations than the previous four presidents have had 34 days after taking the oath of office, she said.
So far, only 10 nominees across the government are confirmed — two of whom were confirmed on Tuesday — which lags significantly behind the previous four administrations, something Schulman attributes to the unique circumstances facing the start of the administration.
Among those challenges: the ascertainment issue as highlighted by the senior official; the Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia, which secured a 50-50 split in the Senate and required a long organizing period for committee leadership, meant some subcommittees were still sorting out their leadership rules into last week; the COVID-19 pandemic hangs over everything; and the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, which absorbed precious time on Capitol Hill.
“Historical comparisons to prior transitions deserve context, and the Biden administration and Senate are both experiencing some really challenging circumstances.” Schulman said. “It’s hardly a normal working environment.”
Another factor identified by Schulman is that the Biden team prioritized its early focus on lining up a core of appointees below the PAS threshold in order to immediately take on major portfolios like the budget or the pandemic. To this point, more than 70 officials — deputy assistant secretaries, special assistants to Austin and other key roles — have been announced for the Pentagon.
But a focus on non-Senate confirmed roles means individuals get pushed into acting or temporary positions, which has potential drawbacks, particularly when dealing with the uniformed staff.
Schake said there are two main risks for not having nominees in as quickly as possible: “Not having people committed to the president’s priorities making early decisions that will set the tone of the administration, and not having their civilian appointees in place will require them to rely more on military staffs, undercutting the administration’s avowed commitment to rebalance civil-military relations.”
Those concerns are compounded by a hangover effect from the Trump administration, which struggled to keep confirmed officials in a number of top spots. By the time the administration flipped, 40 percent of the Senate-confirmed jobs were being filled by acting officials.
Schake identified the other undersecretaries of defense — intelligence; personnel and readiness; research and engineering; and acquisition and sustainment — as the priority roles for the Biden administration to nominate.
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.