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It is long past time to break Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military promotions

FILE - Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., speaks during the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Commodities, Risk Management, and Trade on Commodity Programs, Credit and Crop Insurance hearing at Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE – Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., speaks during the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Commodities, Risk Management, and Trade on Commodity Programs, Credit and Crop Insurance hearing at Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

President Biden announced yesterday that he was nominating Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Earlier this week, Biden announced that he had nominated U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh to the head of both Cyber Command (he is currently the command’s deputy commander) as well as chief of the National Security Agency. The appointment also grants Haugh a fourth star, to full general. Except neither appointment may come anytime soon.

The president’s nomination adds the 185th and 186th names to the list of promotions that have stalled due to Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) blanket “hold” on all of them. The tradition of senatorial courtesy provides that any member of that body can put a “hold” on confirmation of any executive branch nominee for any reason, or for no reason at all. Far too often, individual nominees have suffered through a lengthy, frustrating, sometimes seemingly endless confirmation process through no fault of their own. They are simply collateral damage; individual senators hold them hostage in order to force the administration to adopt a policy or program of their liking. 

Senators rarely put holds on military promotions, which are routine, dealt with in packages and invariably command the body’s unanimous consent. The Senate addresses individual promotions only when there are specific concerns about a particular nominee.

Tuberville has stretched the practice of a “hold” beyond recognition by issuing a blanket hold on all military promotions. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pointed out in a May 5 letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who chairs the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “the Department of Defense has 64 three- and four-star nominations pending for positions due to rotate within the next 120 days. These include the Chief of Staff of the Army; the Chief of Naval operations; the Commandant and Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps; the Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of United State Cyber Command [General Haugh]; and the Commander of United States Northern Command.”

Austin added that “several one- and two-star nominations are now on indefinite hold for general officers and flag officers slated to take command or support critical positions across the Joint Force.” In addition, Austin stated, within the next nine months there would be 80 more top-level military rotations across the Department of Defense (DOD). Finally, and for good measure, Austin pointed out that the delays affect the training and equipping of the Joint Force, the security of military communications and data, and military readiness, among other aspects of a military that must confront threats from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and terrorists worldwide.  

Seven of his predecessors have backed Secretary Austin’s remonstrations. In their own bipartisan letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), former Secretaries Bill Perry, Bill Cohen, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, representing every administration from Clinton through Trump, reiterated the danger to national security generally, and readiness specifically, that Tuberville’s ongoing hold posed for the U.S.

Their note also pointed out “the real-world impacts” on the families of these officers. They could not move and resettle their families; their children could not enroll in new schools; spouses could not begin new jobs. As they bluntly put it, “we can think of few things as irresponsible and uncaring as harming the families of those who serve our nation in uniform.”

Tuberville recently wrote that he is angry that the Defense Department “seems determined to turn the Pentagon into a five-sided faculty lounge whose purpose is left-wing social engineering.” Specifically, he argues that the DOD should not pay for service members’ travel if they are seeking abortions; he calls it a violation of the Hyde Amendment that bans government spending on abortions. Furthermore, he asserts that the Senate could vote on each individual promotion, “in a military of 2 million and boasting 650 general officers, slowing down the process doesn’t put our national security at risk.”  

In fact, were the Senate to vote on each individual promotion, it would have little time for any other business for the remainder of the fiscal year and perhaps beyond. In other words, there would be no time to vote on raising the debt ceiling, or authorizations and appropriations, executive and judicial confirmations, or any other congressional business. In effect, Tuberville not only is undermining the military promotion system, he wants to bring the business of government to a crashing halt.

Tuberville has little support among his Senate colleagues. McConnell has made it clear that he does not support the hold. But thus far, the Senate has done nothing to break it, for fear that it would jeopardize a hallowed individual senatorial prerogative. However, that prerogative was not meant to be abused. In the current circumstance, with America facing a growing Chinese threat and Russian aggression in Europe, the majority and minority leaders should call for action to terminate Tuberville’s hold. The Alabama senator’s extraordinary challenge to the military demands nothing less than an extraordinary Senate response to sustain the nation’s security in these most difficult of times.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Defense Department Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Lloyd Austin Military Senate Tommy Tuberville Tommy Tuberville

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