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Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD’s deputy secretary

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When the Senate confirmed David Norquist by voice vote, it not only demonstrated his overwhelming  popularity on Capitol Hill but also, at long last, emplaced the top level of the Pentagon’s leadership after a half-year hiatus. Norquist, previously confirmed as Pentagon comptroller and chief financial officer, had been acting as deputy secretary ever since James Mattis resigned as secretary and, as a result, former deputy secretary Patrick Shanahan acted in his former boss’s place. In fact, Norquist was not even formally the acting deputy; he was “performing the duties of deputy secretary,” a weird formulation intended to comply with the terms of the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

Dave Norquist has admirers beyond Capitol Hill. Equally important are his popularity inside the Pentagon, his successful tenure as Pentagon comptroller, and his broad-based experience. Both his colleagues on the E Ring — whether in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs, and the Service department leaderships — and their staffs respected his judgment, even as he had to make difficult funding allocation decisions. 

In addition, as chief financial officer and unlike any of his predecessors, myself included, he successfully oversaw the first-ever, department-wide audit, covering over $2.7 trillion in assets and $2.6 trillion in liabilities. His experience as a partner in the Kearney accounting firm, which focuses on government practice, certainly helped him in this regard. As he was the first to acknowledge, the audit was far from complete. It was by no means what is termed a “clean audit.” Nevertheless, it represented the largest audit of its kind anywhere, and for that he rightly deserved the kudos that he received. 

Norquist is no mere accountant, however. He was serving as a key staffer on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee when I hired him as my deputy. He brought with him not only a  fine reputation for diligence and collegiality on the Hill, but also experience in the bowels of the Pentagon as both as a presidential management intern (as the internship program was then called) and then as an Army resource analyst. He also spent time working in the United Kingdom, and his international experience proved exceedingly valuable as he took the lead in managing budget matters arising from the occupation of Iraq. 

In that latter capacity, he worked closely with not only key allies, but also the leadership of the State Department’s economics bureau — no small feat at a time when the Department of Defense (DOD) and State were at loggerheads on most issues relating to Iraq.

Norquist’s background and demeanor, therefore, will serve him exceedingly well as the Defense Department’s chief operating officer and as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s stand-in when Esper is away from Washington. His in-depth knowledge of programs and budgets will ensure that DOD makes the most of the recent budget agreement that will provide the department with stable funding through fiscal year 2021. His international experience as deputy under secretary will serve him in good stead as he interacts with counterparts, both defense ministers and their deputies, worldwide. And his ability to work closely and well with other departments will perhaps provide some comity to an executive branch that often has been chaotic.

Far too many vacancies remain in the Pentagon. This is an exceedingly troublesome circumstance for a department that would have to oversee wartime operations at short notice. Nevertheless, with DOD’s top two positions filled, the civilian leadership that is essential for managing the government’s largest department, both in war and in peace, at last is firmly in place.

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 under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags David Norquist Department of Defense DOD James Mattis Mark Esper Office of the Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan Pentagon

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