Remember this “controversy”? Weeks ago, when Biden announced Austin as his pick for SecDef, a wave of doubt swept through Congress. Federal law says that a former military officer needs to be retired for seven years in order to become defense secretary unless Congress grants a waiver. Congress did grant a waiver to James Mattis four years ago, only the second ever given. (The other was to George Marshall in 1950, as the Korean War was heating up.) Now Biden wanted one for his own nominee, a move that threatened to destroy the seven-year rule entirely. Mattis’s waiver could be justified on grounds that Trump was a loose cannon and needed a seasoned military man to advise him, even if that meant bending the rules. But there’s no such logic to justify a waiver for Austin. If he gets one, it means Congress is now granting waivers upon request. Which means there’s effectively no bar on recently retired military officers leading the Pentagon.
The only suspense, really, was whether Biden would drop Austin after the first round of grumbling from lawmakers began or if he’d stick by him, all but daring Democrats in Congress to torpedo his nominee.
Biden stuck by him, forcing Democrats to stick by Austin too. And many Republicans have no qualms about military leadership of the Pentagon, viewing it as a gesture of respect for the armed forces. The result was predictable:
The 326-78 vote in the House comes after several House Democrats, as well as an official House Republican policy group, came out in opposition to the waiver. They argued that it would endanger the tradition of civilian leadership at the Pentagon to usher a second recently retired general into the position so soon after Gen. Jim Mattis, who served as former president Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), despite his initial uneasiness with the waiver, emerged as one of Austin’s strongest champions Thursday, appealing to his colleagues to back the waiver to make sure Austin takes office as soon as possible.
“He deserves this waiver, and our country deserves a fully-confirmed secretary of defense as soon as we can get that done,” Smith said on the House floor just before the vote.
There were ominous reports last week about members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (including Democrats) lining up against Austin. At points in December it seemed like Democratic military vets in Congress might bail on him in order to signal their support for civilian control of the military. But in the end making sure the new president had his cabinet approved as expeditiously as possible washed all of that away. Nothing better captures the capitulation here than the reversal by Dem Sen. Jack Reed, a West Point grad and Army veteran, who swore four years ago after Mattis’s waiver was approved that he’d never support another one. Yesterday he came out in favor of one for Austin, saying, “I backed the waiver for General Mattis in large part because of Donald Trump’s inexperience and temperament and had no intention of supporting another waiver so soon. That rationale seems almost quaint now considering the seismic forces we are currently facing.”
We needed Mattis because of an “emergency” and now it seems we need Austin because of an “emergency” too. It’s emergencies all the way down.
I do think there’s a legit Trumpy X factor in Austin sailing towards confirmation, though. Namely, Trump’s “stop the steal” shenanigans froze the Senate GOP during the transition period, as no one in McConnell’s caucus wanted to start holding confirmation hearings on Biden’s nominees for fear of appearing “disloyal.” “Former President Barack Obama had six Cabinet members confirmed by the Senate before his Inauguration Day in 2009. President Trump had two,” noted NPR a few days ago. One of those two was Mattis, whose waiver was approved a week before Inauguration Day. Biden had no one confirmed until Avril Haines, the new director of intelligence, was approved last night. He’s been forced to install acting directors at every other cabinet position, including defense, to fill the gaps for now. Ironically, because the Senate is worried about leaving executive departments leaderless for weeks and is now racing to make up for lost time, Biden’s nominees will probably receive more lenient treatment even from Republicans than they would have if hearings had been held earlier this month, as is done traditionally.
In fact, I wonder if even a single Biden nominee will end up tanking. Probably not, now that Dems have control of a 50/50 Senate. Maybe Neera Tanden? Or will she not even make it to 50?
Update: It’s a done deal. The “stop Austin to protect civilian control of the military” push was a fart in the wind.
Austin waiver passes Senate, 69-27
— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) January 21, 2021