Congress gave Austin a pass for three reasons. First, the Senate tends to let a president choose his top cabinet secretaries as long as they’re at least somewhat qualified for the job, and Austin—who was the Army’s vice chief of staff as well as commander of U.S. Central Command—is certainly qualified.
Second, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary, and rejecting him, for whatever reason, would send a dangerous signal at a time when even the Joint Chiefs of Staff have openly expressed concern about the rise of white supremacist views within the military ranks. (Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, made precisely this argument on Monday in a letter urging colleagues to vote for a waiver.) This is especially true since Austin, in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, committed to root out extremist views from the armed forces as a top priority. (He also pledged zero tolerance of sexual harassment.)
Finally, at that same hearing, Austin said many times, in many ways, that he would rely heavily on the Pentagon’s top civilian officials, turning to them for advice even more than he would turn to the Joint Chiefs. He even said that he would regard the presumptive deputy secretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks, as a “partner” in setting policy—unusual, as deputy secretaries usually play a more managerial role, running the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations.