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A House committee has voted to make it more difficult for retired generals to lead the Pentagon


In an indication that Washington intends to minimize its reliance on former generals leading the Pentagon, the House Armed Services Committee voted to make it more difficult for a retired senior military commander to become Secretary of Defense.

A House committee has voted to make it more difficult for retired generals to lead the Pentagon

The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved by voice vote late Wednesday and formally passed by the committee Thursday morning, would increase the amount of time retired officers must be out of duty from seven to ten years before they can become defense chief. The rule further states that the requirement can only be waived with the approval of three-quarters of both chambers of Congress, or a super majority. Currently, a waiver can be granted by a simple majority of legislators. The idea still needs to be approved by the House and Senate, but it sends a clear message that both Republicans and Democrats agree that having two retired four-star generals manage the Pentagon in rapid succession — first Jim Mattis, then Lloyd Austin — was excessive. Because they hadn’t been out of duty for the minimum seven years, both needed a congressional dispensation to be approved. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a veteran Marine intelligence officer and amendment sponsor, said in an interview, “I’m concerned that the trend is going in the wrong direction.” “It’s moving in a path that jeopardizes civilian military control.” Gallagher, who voted against giving a waiver to Austin this year, expressed concern that what was formerly unusual is becoming commonplace, “from the presumption of denial for former high ranking officers to a presumption of approval.”

Before Mattis was confirmed as Secretary of Defense in 2017

just one retired general needed a waiver to hold the highest civilian position, according to Gallagher. George Marshall said it in 1950, only a few years after the job of Secretary of Defense was created. “I believe Congress should send a statement that the bar is too low and that we must increase it,” he said. The initial statute prohibiting retired military commanders from serving as Secretary of Defense required a 10-year “cooling off” period, which was reduced to seven years in 2008. A number of scholars applauded the new move to change it again, which would apply to officers with the equivalent rank of retired colonel or higher. They have been warning that the tradition of civilian control of the military has eroded in recent years, in part due to a reliance on recently retired officers to serve as the top civilian. “It’s a great idea to extend the time following active duty before someone becomes secretary,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. However, not everyone agrees, including the chair of the House subcommittee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). During the committee debate, Smith, who voted against the amendment, stated, “I don’t think it’s an enormous concern.”

“I don’t think we should rule out the possibility of the commander in chief finding someone within five, six, or seven years who wants to be secretary of defense and a majority of Congress in the House and Senate agreeing.” Mr. Gallagher makes a good case,” Smith continued. “I just don’t think we should make it any more difficult than it already is.” Republican Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.), a retired Air Force brigadier general, was among many who concurred. “I don’t want to make it more difficult for the president to choose the best person for Secretary of Defense as long as they’re retired,” he said during the argument. It was also dubbed “a bad amendment” by Guy Snodgrass, a former Navy officer who worked as Mattis’ speechwriter. In an interview, he wondered, “Why would you pull men and women who have committed their entire lives to public service and are specialists in national security out of the race for our country’s top national security post?” “At the end of the day, we need the flexibility to hire the best and brightest people. Discrimination is defined as restricting the pool of applicants unnecessarily.” During the House panel’s markup of the defense policy bill, however, Gallagher’s argument gained traction rapidly. “It’s obviously a new precedent,” Republican Rep. Blake Moore of Utah said of the Pentagon’s appointment of retired generals. “So, if we want civic control to be the rule, if we want it to be the standard, we should follow this method. Otherwise, it will deteriorate.”

Extending the cooling-off period for former officers might also have significant benefits, according to Peter Feaver, a Duke University civil-military relations specialist who served on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. He pointed out that Congress’s initial decision to limit the civilian function of recently retired generals so soon after WWII was made “to ensure we didn’t have people in charge who would fight the final war,” he added. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the chair of the Armed Services Committee, has raised doubts about providing waivers for retired generals to lead the Pentagon. This fall, the House and Senate committees will have to reconcile their competing defense measures.