The House Armed Services Committee has voted to make it more difficult for a retired senior military officer to become secretary of defense, in a sign that Washington wants to reduce its reliance on former generals running the Pentagon.
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was adopted by voice vote late Wednesday and fully passed by the committee Thursday morning, would extend the period that retired officers must be out of uniform from seven to 10 years before becoming defense chief. The provision also stipulates that the requirement can be waived only if three-fourths of both chambers of Congress, or a super majority, approve. Right now, lawmakers can grant a waiver through a simple majority.
The proposal still needs to be adopted by the House and Senate, but it sends a clear signal that Republicans and Democrats believe that having two retired four-stars run the Pentagon in close succession — first Jim Mattis and now Lloyd Austin — went too far.
Both needed a congressional waiver to be confirmed because they had not been out of uniform the required seven years.
"I'm worried that the trend is going in the wrong direction," Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a retired Marine intelligence officer and sponsor of the amendment, said in an interview. "It is going in the direction that hurts civilian control of the military."
Gallagher, who voted against granting a waiver for Austin this year, said he worries that what was once exceedingly rare is becoming the norm, "from the presumption of denial for former high ranking officers to a presumption of approval."
Gallagher pointed out that before Mattis was confirmed as secretary of defense in 2017, only one retired general needed a waiver to fill the top civilian job. That was George Marshall in 1950, just a few years after the position of secretary of defense was established.
"I think the Congress needs to send a message that the bar is too low and we need to raise the bar," he said.
The original law that barred retired military officers from serving as secretary of defense mandated a 10-year "cooling off" period, but that was shortened to seven in 2008.
The new move to change it again, which would apply to the equivalent of the rank of retired colonel or higher, was hailed by a number of scholars who have been warning that the tradition of civilian control of the military has eroded in recent years in part by relying too heavily on recently retired officers to serve as the top civilian.
"It's an excellent idea to lengthen the time after active duty before someone becomes secretary, so that they get experience in addition to their military service," said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute.
Not everyone thinks it's a good idea, however, including the House panel's chair, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
"I don't think it's enormous problem," Smith, who voted against the amendment, said during the committee debate. "If the commander in chief finds someone who's within five or six or seven years that they want to be secretary of defense and a majority of Congress in the House and the Senate agrees, I don't think we should preclude that option.
"Mr. Gallagher makes a decent argument," Smith added. "I just don't think we should make it that much more difficult."
Others agreed, including Republican Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.), a retired Air Force brigadier general. "I don't want to make it harder for the president to pick the finest person to be secretary of defense as long as they are retired," he said in the debate.
Guy Snodgrass, a former Navy officer who served as speechwriter for Mattis, also labeled it "a poor amendment."
"Why would you take men and women who dedicated their entire lives to public service and are experts in national security out of the running for our nation’s top national security post?" he asked in an interview. "At the end of the day, we need flexibility to tap the most talented and appropriate individuals. Unduly constraining the pool of candidates is the very definition of discrimination."
But Gallagher's pitch quickly gained momentum during the House panel's markup of the defense policy bill. "It's clearly a new precedent," Republican Rep. Blake Moore of Utah said of installing retired generals at the top of the Pentagon. "So if we want civil control to be the rule here, to be the standard, this is an approach to take. Otherwise it's eroded."
Peter Feaver, a scholar in civil-military relations at Duke University who served on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush, also said extending the cooling off period for former officers could have other benefits.
He noted that the initial decision by Congress to restrict the civilian role of recently retired generals so soon after World War II was also "to make sure we didn't have people in charge who would fight the last war," he said.
The proposal is likely to draw some influential supporters in the Senate, where Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chair of the Armed Services Committee, has expressed reservations about approving waivers for retired generals to run the Pentagon.
The House and Senate committees will ultimately have to reconcile their competing defense bills this fall.
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