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Norquist appears to be on fast track to become Pentagon’s No. 2

Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist speaks during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill March 26, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

David Norquist, President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy Defense secretary, sailed through his confirmation hearing Wednesday, with senators from both sides of the aisle saying they looked forward to voting for him.

Norquist was confirmed by the Senate to be the Pentagon’s comptroller in 2017 and has been the acting deputy Defense secretary since January.

The selection of Norquist, a former chief financial officer of the Department of Homeland Security and a former partner with the accounting firm Kearney & Co., highlights the staffing difficulties at the Pentagon.

After James Mattis resigned as Defense secretary in December, his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, became acting Defense secretary, setting off a chain reaction as officials, including Norquist, stepped into roles vacated above them.

The Senate filled the Pentagon’s top position Tuesday when it confirmed Mark Esper as Defense secretary on a 90-8 vote. But even that action created a vacancy, as Esper had been serving as Army secretary since 2017.

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The Senate has hurried to confirm Esper and give Norquist a confirmation hearing — and possibly a floor vote — ahead of its monthlong August recess.

But numerous vacancies at the Pentagon requiring Senate approval, including Army and Air Force secretary, remain.

“There are still 18 vacant civilian positions that require action,” said Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, during Wednesday’s hearing.

Norquist said Esper was focused on quickly assembling a leadership team, and Pentagon officials discussed the topic regularly.

“There is a plan. There’s a list of the positions, and there’s a list of the candidates and where they are in the process of either getting their background investigation, the clearance, the vetting,” Norquist said.

As comptroller, Norquist oversaw the first completed audit in the Pentagon’s history. While the department failed the audit, it garnered widespread praise as an essential step to tracking the hundreds of billions of dollars that flow through the Pentagon annually.

“Please don’t lose focus on the audit,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “It would be too easy to let it slide.”

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Norquist assured King he would not ignore future audits. The deputy Defense secretary is the Pentagon’s chief operating officer, and one of the key users of the insights gained from the audit, he noted.

Norquist said the audit uncovered three major issues within the Defense Department: information technology and the business systems used by the department; the accuracy of its real property information; and inventory management, particularly inventory held by contractors.

Norquist’s hearing did not have any dramatic moments on par with Esper’s, when Massachusetts Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren pushed Esper on his decision not to recuse on matters regarding Raytheon, his former employer.

Esper worked as a lobbyist for the Massachusetts-based defense giant, and wrote to Warren after his hearing saying he would commit to recusing himself from the proposed merger of Raytheon and United Technologies Corp., even though the law did not require it.

In fact, Warren and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand who is also running for president, both skipped Norquist’s hearing.

Norquist, who spent five years as a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, is the younger brother of Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who founded Americans for Tax Reform.

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© 2019 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved

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