The Senate filled four top Pentagon leadership posts in July alone, but defense advocates in the chamber are hoping for an even busier September confirmation slate.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said last week he expects his committee to see a rush of confirmation hearings following the extended August congressional recess “if I’m successful at convincing the administration we need a whole bunch of (additional nominees). And we do.”
In the weeks leading up to the summer break, lawmakers finalized the appointments of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday.
The military’s top civilian leader was of particular urgency to both the Senate and the Pentagon. The 203-day wait between confirmed defense secretaries was the longest absence in the history of the department, caused by a slow nomination process from the White House and the sudden withdrawal of then acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan from consideration.
Senate committee officials touted the work as a bipartisan accomplishment to restore normal Pentagon leadership operations. But Inhofe also acknowledged that plenty of confirmation work remains.
Among the biggest jobs left to fill are:
— Army Secretary. The White House has nominated current acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy for Esper’s old job.
— Air Force Secretary. Heather Wilson left that post in May. President Donald Trump has said he will nominate Barbara Barrett, former chairwoman of the Aerospace Corporation, to the post.
— Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. That post has been open since Robert Wilkie left one year ago to become Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
— Pentagon Chief Management Officer.
— Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Gen. John Hyten had his nomination to the post advanced by the Senate Armed Services Committee 20-7 before the summer recess, but a full chamber vote won’t happen until this fall. He has been accused of sexual assault by a former aide, an allegation he vociferously denies.
“I know those are critical positions that inhibit the operation of the department,” Inhofe said. “We need to get it done.”
Both Senate lawmakers and Pentagon officials have acknowledged that “acting” officials lack the long-term confidence of allies and department managers, since their temporary appointments could end at any moment.
Inhofe dismissed concerns that a flurry of confirmation hearings could overshadow other oversight work — he has hinted at hearings on Navy ship acquisition and overseas deployments later this year — and said he is confident that the Senate will act quickly on military nominees when the White House announces them.
But that has been a problem. While Trump and Senate Republican leaders have repeatedly blasted chamber Democrats for slowing judicial nominations, the White House has been less-than-speedy in handling many routine military appointments. Barrett, for example, had her nomination announced publicly in May, but official paperwork still has not reached Capitol Hill.
Members of the Armed Services Committee has said they are hopeful with Esper in place, those follow-on nominations will come quicker. Inhofe said he’ll continue to pressure the White House on the issue through the summer.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.