What's at stake with Biden's Pentagon vacancies?

DOD photo by Senior Airman Perry Aston  11th Wing Public Affairs 

President Joe Biden has several Defense Department vacancies to fill, from the heads of military departments to undersecretaries for acquisition, research and engineering, and policy. But a sustained lack of permanent leadership could take a toll on personnel and the budget.

So what's at stake as Democrats move to steer defense policy and budget following a readiness spending boom during the Trump administration?

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics, told FCW that military department secretaries provide "political cover," while military chiefs of staff keep the departments on track.

For service secretaries, Korb said "you want to reward someone who's helped you, maybe a former senator whose vote you need, or you needed, and you make him or her the service secretary."

A bigger concern, he said, are the vacancies in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"I would be more concerned about the under- and assistant secretaries with OSD," Korb said of the vacancies, "that's where you make the decisions."

Right now, the Biden administration's pick for the Pentagon's third top civilian job, the undersecretary of defense for policy is being held up in the Senate. Colin Kahl's nomination cleared committee on a tie 13-13 vote on March 24 but there are still procedural obstacles to clear before he gets an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. Amanda Dory, DOD's principal director for plans and posture, has been acting in the role since January.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the House Armed Services Committee's ranking member told reporters March 22 that he was "bothered" by the vacancies.

"Yeah, I'm bothered by it just like I was bothered by it four years ago when the Democrats held up Trump's people," Rogers said. "The president ought to get his or her people and they can sink or swim based on who they put in there. I hope the Senate gets after it and they can get these people in place because we've got business to do."

The trend of having interim leaders pulling double duty, particularly for an extended period of time, often creates a manpower issue, said Herbert Carlisle, a retired Air Force general and president and CEO of the National Defense Industry Association.

"Inevitably you have a lack of manpower because you haven't filled any of those politically appointed positions. People are up and filling them while they're still doing their other job," Carlisle said. Interim leaders may be constrained when it comes to decision-making because they don't have "close guidance" from a permanent service secretary.

This was a concerning trend that persisted during the Trump administration with a revolving door of confirmed and seemingly permanent acting leadership.

"It's not that those folks won't make a decision, they do when they need to," Carlisle said. "But they don't have that direct line, that direct oversight and guidance of a politically appointed department head."

Budget consequences

David Berteau, the president and CEO for the Professional Services Council and former assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, told FCW that while the fiscal 2022 budget is underway, Biden's OSD and military department picks will have the most impact in fiscal 2023.

"There's a lot of important studies underway: the Global Posture Review, the Nuclear Posture Review...there are all these executive orders that have come out of the White House with 90-day assignments and 120-day assignments and year-long assignments," Berteau said.

"The results of those studies will help shape -- not so much the '22 budget because the studies aren't going to be done in time -- but the '23 budget. This is where the real impact and value of the new nominees being in place matters."

Moreover, there's the impending debate on topline defense spending. Republicans have repeatedly called for a minimum 3% increase, while Democrats, who control both Congressional chambers, have indicated that spending will stay at 2021 levels at $740 billion -- despite the end of Budget Control Act caps.

For Korb, the tug of war over defense spending doesn't matter as much in the long-run. "The Democrats, they worry too much about this, but from what I understand, Biden's going to keep it at the same levels and wait until next year to make some big changes, but that's going to be tough because that's going to be an election year," Korb said.

But the lack of a topline spending agreement means having military secretaries, who need to align with the defense secretary and White House, in place is less concerning, Berteau said.

"It is more important that leadership be in place by the summer and the fall for the next budget than it is that they be in place right now for a budget that's going into uncertain territory where we don't even know what agreement is on the number," Berteau said.

"Taking the time to get it right is really critical and obviously the only time you can really take the time to get it right is at the front."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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