House Committee Moves to Make It Harder for Retired Generals to Be Defense Secretary

The House Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to make it more difficult for a retired senior military officer to become secretary of defense, Politico reported.

A National Defense Authorization Act amendment passed by the committee would extend the period that retired officers must be out of uniform from seven to 10 years before becoming defense secretary, Politico said.

The committee’s vote indicated that Republicans and Democrats believed that having retired four-star Gens. Jim Mattis and Lloyd Austin run the Pentagon in close succession was not good.

“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, told Politico.

“It is going in the direction that hurts civilian control of the military.”

Retired military officers initially had been required to serve a 10-year “cooling off” period before serving as defense secretary. That was shortened to seven years in 2008.

The amendment, adopted by voice vote late Wednesday and fully passed by the committee Thursday morning, stipulates that the requirement can be waived only if three-fourths (super majority) in both chambers of Congress approve. Currently, lawmakers can grant a waiver through a simple majority.

Gallagher, who voted against granting a waiver for Secretary Austin this year, said he was concerned that what once was rare is becoming the norm, “from the presumption of denial for former high-ranking officers to a presumption of approval.”

The proposed amendment still needs to be adopted by the House and Senate.

Both Mattis and Austin, neither of whom had been out of uniform the required seven years, needed a congressional waiver to be confirmed.

Before Mattis, only George Marshall in 1950 needed a waiver to fill the position, and that was shortly after the position of secretary of defense had been established.

“I think the Congress needs to send a message that the bar is too low and we need to raise the bar,” Gallagher said.

A number of scholars have warned that the tradition of civilian control of the military has eroded in recent years.

“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,” Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute, told Politico.

Not all Republicans agreed with Gallagher’s amendment.

“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,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general, said during debate.

Guy Snodgrass, a former Navy officer who served as speechwriter for Mattis, told Politico it is “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?” Snodgrass said.

“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.”

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