Poised to make history as the nation’s first Black secretary of defense, the retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin III began his confirmation hearing on Tuesday by trying to fend off his greatest impediment: the belief among many lawmakers that he should not be given congressional permission to serve in the job.
“I understand and respect the reservations that some of you have expressed about having another recently retired general at the head of the Department of Defense,” General Austin said. “The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil. I spent my entire life committed to that principle.”
In addition to the confirmation nod from the Senate, General Austin needs a congressional exemption from both the House and Senate from a law that bars retired active-duty officers from serving in the top Pentagon job within seven years. On Tuesday, House leaders took the unusual step of bypassing the Armed Services Committee and will vote in the waiver matter on the floor, reflecting the incoming Biden administration’s urgency with the process.
While Congress approved a similar measure four years ago for Mr. Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine officer, lawmakers in both parties have balked at doing it again. Some Senate Republicans, including those who granted the same exemption to Mr. Mattis, appear to view declining the waiver a way to poke at President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s nominee without having to raise objections about his actual qualifications
In his remarks, General Austin repeatedly sought to assure lawmakers that he would take numerous steps to make sure civilian control of the military remained firmly intact. “I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilian leaders who will enable healthy civil-military relations, grounded in meaningful oversight,” he said. When it comes to Congress, he added, “We will be transparent with you. I will provide you my best counsel. And I will seek yours.”
In a potential preview of his priorities, General Austin also addressed the need of the military to step up efforts in combating the coronavirus pandemic, as well as right-wing extremism within the ranks of the military. Some veterans and active duty members of the military have been arrested or questioned in connection with the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Hours before the confirmation hearing began, two National Guard troops were removed from duties related to the inauguration after it was discovered that they had links to right-wing extremist movements.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies,” General Austin said. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.” He made only a passing reference to the threat of China, bypassing mentions of Russia, Iran, North Korea and ISIS, all focus areas for the Pentagon.