On July 13, Mike Brown, director of the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), announced he was withdrawing his name from Senate consideration for the post of Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment. Brown was perfectly suited for the job. A successful businessman, who elected to serve his country by leading the office that reaches out to Silicon Valley and other hi-tech hubs in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Texas and elsewhere, he found himself virtually blackballed as a result of an Inspector General (IG) investigation of claims that he hired cronies at DIU.
The allegation apparently was leveled by a former DIU employee, whose motives for doing so are not apparent. The person — whose identity the IG has not confirmed — may have reflected the acquisition bureaucracy’s reluctance to countenance a radical change to its way of doing business, something that was almost a certainty if Brown was confirmed. Or, the individual might simply dislike Brown.
No matter, the Inspector General must investigate every claim made against a senior official, whatever the claimant’s motive. Brown was certain that he would be cleared, but because he anticipated that the investigation could drag on and leave him in limbo for as much as a year, he preferred to withdraw. As a result, the nation lost a talented leader who would have been instrumental in pushing the Department of Defense (DOD) to reform its acquisition process and to reach out beyond its comfort zone to incorporate more cutting-edge programs from the nation’s hi-tech base.
Brown is not the only victim of a hidebound confirmation process that has resulted in lengthier confirmations and, as a consequence, hundreds of vacancies at the upper echelons of government. Of the DOD’s 61 Senate-confirmed positions, only six have been filled. Several nominees have been voted out by the Senate Armed Services Committee but, much to the frustration of the committee’s leadership, individual senators have put a “hold” on a dozen. “Holds” invariably have nothing to do with a nominee’s talents or character; the individual is simply collateral political damage.
For example, Michigan’s senators have a hold on Frank Kendall’s confirmation as Secretary of the Air Force. Kendall is a respected leader whose prior service includes Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition. But he now is hostage to Sens. Gary PetersGary PetersHillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers Hillicon Valley: Biden to appoint Big Tech critic to DOJ antitrust role | House passes host of bills to strengthen cybersecurity in wake of attacks | Bezos returns from flight to space MORE (D-Mich.) and Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSchumer: Democrats considering option to pay for all of infrastructure agenda Democrats closing in on deal to unlock massive infrastructure bill Senate plants a seed for bipartisan climate solutions MORE (D-Mich.), who apparently are miffed that the Air Force elected to locate its international training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Arkansas instead of Michigan’s Selfridge ANG Base.
The nomination of Susanna Blume to be Assistant Secretary for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), a position that is critical to the formulation of the fiscal year 2023 program, likewise is on hold. Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerCommerce office used racial profiling operating as ‘rogue’ police force: Senate report Rand Paul introducing measure to repeal public transportation mask mandates Congress must act now to pass a bipartisan federal privacy law MORE (R-Miss.), who has held up her confirmation, acknowledges that Blume is worthy of the position but has said he wants the Navy to approve a “block” buy of four amphibious ships — which most likely would be built in his state. When he will lift his hold and CAPE will get its new leader is far from a settled question.
At times it is Senate staffers who initially prompt these holds. Like those who instigate IG investigations, their motives are not uniform. Some may covet the jobs themselves. Others may have a history of conflict with a nominee who previously served in government. And others may advise their bosses that a hold is the best way to prompt change in a DOD program.
The Defense Department is far from alone in suffering from confirmation delays, senior-level vacancies and Senate holds. Of the 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions in the government’s agencies, fewer than 65 have been filled. For example, the State Department has been hit as hard as the DOD. Only six State nominees have been confirmed. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPoll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis US, Germany reach deal on controversial Russian pipeline State, Dems call out Cruz over holds ahead of key Russian talks MORE (R-Texas) is holding up many more. He wants the Biden administration to reverse its agreement with Germany to allow Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to be completed.
When I was confirmed as Under Secretary, I was given a tee shirt that read: “I survived the confirmation process.” That process truly resembles running a gauntlet, and it should come as no surprise that many men and women who would be superb agency leaders prefer to take a pass on the opportunity to do so. The process urgently needs reforming. It is critical that, at a time when the United States once again faces major peer competitors, the government should be able to draw upon its most talented citizens who are ready and able to serve their country.
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.