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Some Democrats now say they’ll vote against Biden SecDef nominee waiver

Then-U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander, U.S. Forces Iraq, during his change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad, Sept. 1, 2010. (Department of Defense/Released)
January 13, 2021

Several Democrat lawmakers said they plan to vote against granting a waiver for recently-retired Army General Lloyd Austin, who was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as secretary of defense, according to new reports this week.

Austin retired from the military in 2016, and according to U.S. law, an individual serving as defense secretary must have been out of uniform for seven years minimum. A waiver from Congress can allow someone to bypass the rule, but reported that a number of senators said they would vote against the move.

“The reason for the principle of civilian control is not only to protect our democracy against military interference, it is to protect the military against excessive interference — political partisan interference –that may jeopardize the professionalism and effectiveness of our military,” said Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Marine Corps veteran.

Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois, another veteran, echoed Blumenthal’s comments, adding that the seven-year rule was too short.

“The military is a much smaller community than it may seem to people who haven’t served,” she said. “Especially as service members make their way up the ranks and that pyramid gets steeper and steeper.”

According to Duckworth, a recently-retired general will likely have personal relationships with high-ranking leaders in the military, putting them “in a difficult situation.”

Granting a waiver to Austin not long after Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general who served under President Donald Trump as secretary of defense, was approved via a waiver in 2017, sets “a dangerous precedent,” according to Lindsay Cohn, a Naval War College professor. Mattis was a once-in-a-generation exception, Cohn asserted.

“I think that this chamber has a very difficult decision in front of it to decide whether the reasons that the president-elect has given, and the reasons that you all can think of yourself, justify printing another waiver,” Cohn told senators.

Despite the criticism, Biden defended choosing Austin, saying, “I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military. So does the secretary-designee Austin. He’ll be bolstered by a strong and empowered civilian sector and senior [officials] working [Defense Department] policies and to ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people.”

Kathleen McInnis, a Congressional Research Service international security specialist, said routinely allowing waivers could lead to fallout in the position she called inherently political.

According to McInnis, Mattis was criticized for seeking out advice from military colleagues rather than Defense Department civilians.

“They are there to do the day-to-day work of civilian oversight of the military,” McInnis said. “They work with their counterparts overseas to understand political and military dynamics that might impact national security. They go to war zones and help military commanders really understand the secretary’s intent. They are where the rubber meets the road of civilian-military relations.”