Nope, there's still no nominee for secretary of defense

Published on Wednesday, 13 March 2019 20:48
Written by Jonathan Bernstein

Excuse the shouting, but this is one of the worst cases of negligence in governing since, well, I don’t know when. As I wrote a month ago, this is only the third prolonged case in history of using an acting defense secretary, and the first time there’s ever been a vacancy of more than one day without a nominee already named.

James Mattis announced his resignation on Dec. 20, and Patrick Shanahan has been filling in since the beginning of the year. Repeating: That’s over two months, compared to the previous record of one day.

In the meantime, chaos continues unchecked throughout the administration of President Donald Trump. Just last week, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he’ll be leaving the Food and Drug Administration in April, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced she’ll be gone in May and White House Communications Director Bill Shine was shifted over to the 2020 presidential campaign. Shine is already the fifth or sixth communications director the administration has had, depending on whether Sean Spicer’s two stints count once or twice. So far, there’s been no announced replacement for any of these officials.

At least there’s a sort of a nominee to replace Brock Long, who resigned in February from his post as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Jeffrey Byard’s nomination to that post was announced on Feb. 15, but Trump hasn’t submitted his name to the Senate yet. That’s also true for Deputy Attorney General pick Jeffrey A. Rosen, who was named on Feb. 19, and United Nationas Ambassador selection Kelly Knight Craft, who was named on Feb. 22 to replace Nikki Haley, who announced that she was leaving back on Oct. 9.

Any agency can get along with a vacancy and an acting leader for awhile. But the cost of neglect is drift and bureaucratic inertia. Policy change is less likely to happen, either in response to the president’s preferences, congressional preferences, or simply changes in the world. Yes, presidents can tell acting chiefs what to do. But foot-dragging and delay is a natural bureaucratic skill, and it’s easy to deploy against someone who is only going to be around for a short while and isn’t backed by the clout of a Senate confirmation.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with listening to the civil servants who gain power in the absence of strong leaders; they have a great deal of expertise about the functioning of their agencies. But the U.S. has political leadership for good reasons, both democratic (because political people are more accountable than civil servants) and pragmatic (because political people have a strong incentive to produce positive results and avoid visible negative ones, while civil servants have an incentive structure that revolves around protecting their budgets).

Also, the lack of presidential interest that acting bosses represent tends to demoralize the career staff, as Dan Drezner discusses in a column about the damage done to the State Department that “will take years - perhaps a decade - to undo.” I would love to see a similar analysis of the Justice Department, which went months with an attorney general getting publicly berated by the president and still has career prosecutors subject to partisan attacks from the administration and its allies.

Trump is happy to throw money at the Defense Department, but can’t be bothered to fully staff it or heed it. Indeed, it’s a lot easier for National Security Adviser John Bolton to ignore policymakers at Defense if there isn’t a confirmed secretary to attend principals meetings, and it’s a lot easier to not have those meetings if there’s no confirmed secretary to get upset about it.

The people who could actually do something about this state of affairs are the same people who have failed to press Trump to run a responsible presidency: Republican senators.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Editorials on Wednesday, 13 March 2019 20:48. Updated: Wednesday, 13 March 2019 20:50.