WASHINGTON — Tuesday marked the three-month anniversary of the last time the Biden administration put forth nominees for the top political jobs at the Pentagon —and there are no signs that new candidates will be announced in the near term.
Of the 61 Senate-confirmed roles at the Department of Defense — known officially as presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation jobs, or PAS — only three nominations have been put forth to date.
“The department continues to work with administration officials to identify for nomination talented individuals for these vacant jobs,” John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said during a briefing Tuesday.
“Obviously, there’s more work to be done and we recognize that, but we are focused first and foremost on identifying and nominating the best, most talented, most qualified people for these jobs and not necessarily fixated on a pre-determined timeline of how to do that.”
Regarding when nominations might be announced, Kirby added that “the nomination process does not belong to us, it belongs to the president of the United States, and we respect that. Our job is to help the administration identify these individuals and recommend for nomination, but the nomination processes is done out of the White House.”
A senior administration official also declined to put a timetable on nominations, and pointed a finger at logjams over FBI background checks, dating back to the Congressional delay in confirming Biden’s electoral win. However, Biden’s three earlier nominees for the department were all put forth before the Jan. 6 ascertainment vote by Congress.
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.
The nomination for Colin Kahl, announced alongside Hicks Dec. 30 to be the undersecretary of defense for policy, was sent to the committee on Jan. 20. SASC Republicans united in opposition to his nomination, delaying the process while Democrats worked to hold members together; he was eventually voted on in committee on party lines in mid-March, but now faces a grueling process that could take weeks before a final confirmation.
For his part, Kirby called Kahl an individual with “significant and deep policy experience” and said Austin looks forward to Kahl being confirmed by the senate.
Committee Democrats have privately expressed concern over both the pace of Biden’s nominations, given overall questions about strengthening civilian control of the department, and over fears that Republicans will treat other veterans of the Obama administration like Kahl, slowing the nominations process to a near-halt.
The remaining jobs — which range from the three service secretaries to the inspector general down to the assistant secretary of defense level — are being filled in an acting capacity.
According to Kirby, 97 political appointees at lower levels, out of a possible 350, have been assigned to the department since the start of the Biden administration. Many of those are serving in an acting or performing-the-duties-of role for the empty PAS spots, in conjunction with a handful of holdovers from the Trump administration. But experts warn that having fully confirmed officials is necessary to successfully carry out the president’s agenda, both externally and within the inter-agency process.
“We very much understand the importance of filling these national security jobs with professionals, fully qualified, able and willing to do the task, Kirby said. “We understand the importance to national security of these jobs.”
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.