Coronavirus | COVID-19 Updates

20 empty seats: Coronavirus may slow Pentagon’s push to fill vacancies

WASHINGTON — A third of the Pentagon’s jobs are missing a Senate-confirmed leader, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, there are new questions about how many of those roles can be filled before November’s presidential election.

Of the Pentagon’s 60 positions that must be confirmed by the Senate, 20 jobs are empty, a spokesman from the Department of Defense confirmed.

The DoD is not alone in its vacancies: According to numbers compiled by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, 150 of the 749 total political positions requiring confirmation from the Senate are currently without a nominee across the whole of government, with another 82 nominations awaiting action by the Senate.

But the Pentagon’s staffing vacuum comes as it grapples with its increasing role in the nation’s response to COVID-19, a flare up in hostilities with Iran as well as military tensions with China in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy, on its third acting secretary in less than a year, is recovering from a spate of leadership meltdowns and is looking inward at how to best integrate both the Marine Corps and unmanned vessels.

There are three tiers of empty jobs:

  • Jobs with no nominees (13): The undersecretary of defense for policy; comptroller; undersecretary of the Air Force; undersecretary of the Navy; principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence; principal deputy undersecretary for policy; principal deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness; assistant secretary of defense for the Pacific; assistant secretary of defense international security affairs; assistant secretary of defense readiness; assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs; assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense; assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
  • Nominees whose names have been announced but have not been sent to the senate (3): Michele Pearce to be general counsel of the Army; John Whitley to be director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office; and Kathryn Wheelbarger to be deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. Wheelbarger, whose planned nomination was announced in February, has reportedly been placed on hold by White House officials who feel she is not sufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump.
  • Nominees who await Senate action (4): Kenneth “K.J.” Braithwaite to be secretary of the Navy; James Anderson to be deputy undersecretary for policy; Victor Mercado to be assistant secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities; and Jason Abend to be inspector general.

While those Pentagon jobs lack confirmed individuals, there are officials in the building who are filling those roles. Because of the number of openings, those individuals are sometimes filling roles multiple levels above where they should be. For instance, Anderson, the nominee to be deputy undersecretary of policy, was confirmed as the assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities and began filling in as deputy USD-P since mid-2019; and then he started acting as undersecretary for policy in February 2020.

The nomination of Kenneth “K.J.” Braithwaite, left, to be secretary of the Navy is pending Senate approval. (MC3 Cameron M. Stoner/U.S. Navy)
The nomination of Kenneth “K.J.” Braithwaite, left, to be secretary of the Navy is pending Senate approval. (MC3 Cameron M. Stoner/U.S. Navy)

Working against the chances of filling those jobs are a number of factors. The first is typical of any election year: Individuals are hesitant to give up current employment and begin the long, sometimes arduous process of going through a Senate confirmation to land a job that may only belong to them for a few months before a new administration is voted into office. Election years also come with longer recesses for the Senate, as members return home to campaign, leaving narrower windows to get work done than in a non-election year.

But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic throws another wrinkle into the process. The House and Senate have been holding placeholder pro forma sessions since lawmakers left Washington at the end of March. And when lawmakers do return in earnest, work on relief bills will consume much of their time. Meanwhile, the House and Senate Armed Services committees are still seeking a way forward on their annual defense policy bills.

“The Senate was already going to be in session fewer than 10 weeks starting in May, and they have lost lots of legislative time being out for COVID-19,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and former SASC staff director. “It’s not clear how the Senate can operate on the same battle rhythm with COVID-19. We all have experienced that it takes a lot longer to accomplish tasks in a COVID-19 era than before.”

“It’s unrealistic to expect that the executive branch will nominate people for all the vacancies, and it’s unrealistic to expect that the SASC/Senate will — given the calendar and the need to consider, pass and conference the defense bills — process nominations post the Memorial Day recess unless they are out of committee, already on the Senate executive calendar or a truly extraordinary development,” he said.

Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director for studies with the Center for a New American Security, said the main factors for nominations now is whether Congress will reconvene and how voting may work amid social distancing efforts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday blocked a proposal to allow remote voting in the upper chamber. The House on Wednesday postponed plans to debate proxy voting.

Still, Schulman expressed a belief that if Congress focuses on the vacancy issue the way it would with a major role, such as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “they’d find a way to get a hearing done safely. They should consider other DoD vacancies with similar urgency.”

Next steps in the Senate

Unsurprisingly, the most likely nominations to pass through the Senate are the four already received by the SASC. Punaro expects the committee to move “quickly” on the high-priority nominations, most notably Braithwaite.

After the April 7 resignation of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., put public pressure on the Trump administration, calling the churn at the top of the Navy “disturbing. He said he would work quickly to see Braithwaite confirmed, and he also plans to pursue the Pentagon’s inspector general nomination.

“Once the Senate is back in session, I will make sure the Armed Services Committee considers the nomination of the next Secretary of the Navy quickly, and I ask my fellow committee members to help me expedite this nomination as well,” Inhofe said in a statement. “Our Sailors, Marines and their families deserve to have stable, capable leadership at the helm during these challenging times."

According to a SASC aide, Inhofe has been in contact with Defense Secretary Mark Esper as they work to process nominations “as quickly as possible while also mitigating health risks to the maximum extent.”

Inhofe plans to confer with panel members about a path ahead, but there’s been no decision regarding timing or format for upcoming nomination hearings, and “all options are being discussed,” the aide said.

Per Senate rules, the committee must meet in person to vote on nominations, and the Senate must be in session for the committee to report the nomination to the floor.

“To ensure the most effective response to the pandemic, the nominations for the next secretary of the Navy as well as the Department of Defense inspector general will be one of the committee’s top priorities when the Senate returns,” the aide said.

Complicating the logistics, some of Trump’s picks may be politically fraught, as controversial nominations often take up extra time on the calendar. Abend — the Customs and Border Protection official with no related defense inspector general experience — would replace Glenn Fine, who had been serving as the department’s acting IG since January 2016; the move came after Fine was tapped to oversee more than $2 trillion in pandemic response funding. Fine was demoted, meaning he could no longer perform the pandemic oversight role.

SASC’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, said the action was part of an “alarming” trend, as Trump has recently removed several senior inspectors general at other agencies.

Both Mercado and Anderson may move quickly, however, as they had their committee hearing together on March 10.

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