Senator Tuberville’s blanket hold on general officer nominations reaches its six-month anniversary this week. This all seems to have started with a reckless idea dreamed up by a staffer with no experience in the Senate who then left the Senator’s employment after taking credit for it in a Washington Post exposé. From its shaky foundations, the hold strategy has now morphed into a take-no-prisoners stand against federal funding of abortion and “wokeness” in the military. Tuberville appears to have no concept of an end game except total victory. Barring capitulation by the Senator, which doesn’t seem to be in the cards, the rest of the Senate needs to come up with a Plan B.
There are now 301 general and flag officer positions, including five spots on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which are impacted by these holds. By year’s end, that number may rise to 650. Tuberville argues that there is no readiness impact for having acting officers in place. He may eventually be right in the sense that the military is a mission-driven organization and will adjust whether or not the Senate acts. Since military rotations are on a two-year cycle, fairly soon every general and admiral in the military will be in an acting position. This may be the likeliest future outcome.
Regular order and unscripted debates on amendments died long ago and as a result, the Senate can’t pass annual authorization bills except for the defense policy bill. The civilian nominations process is broken with over 180 confirmed positions still unfilled two and a half years into the current administration, and now the military nominations process has come unglued.
Trying to convince Senator Tuberville to withdraw his holds has been an exercise in futility. There is equally no appetite to modify the rules for holds and bundle these confirmations as that might set undesirable precedents. That leaves the option of doing nothing or altering what positions the Senate is required to confirm. The latter should be considered.
Until the Tuberville holds, the Senate routinely considered 50,000 military nominees a year primarily by unanimous consent. The biggest question one must ask is why? All military officers above the O-4 level (a major or lieutenant commander) must go through Senate confirmation for each promotion. This is referred to as a constitutional responsibility and yet an O-4 is the equivalent to a GS-13 in the civil service, while general officers are the equivalent of the Senior Executive Service (SES). The Senate does not confirm the nearly 490,000 federal employees at the GS-13 level or above nor the over 8,000 members of the SES even though they are all technically officers of the federal government as defined by the Constitution.
What would parity look like? Currently, 61 civilians at the Department of Defense (DoD) require Senate confirmation. That is a good starting point to consider for military generals, but just focusing on the 41 four-star generals in service according to the latest DoD data is probably enough. Confirming just these officers could take over four months of floor time if holds were placed on them. Still, the Senate now needs to structure its rules and plan its calendar around standing holds on all nominations—civilian or military. That means limiting the number of individuals that require confirmation.