Navy Secretary Bends Rules About Ship Naming to Honor Democratic Politician

Ray Mabus again accused of politicizing process

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus with former Sen. Carl Levin / AP

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Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is under fire for bending service rules in order to name the next Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer after a retired Democratic politician.

Mabus, who has previously been accused of politicizing the ship-naming process, announced Monday that the destroyer will be named after Carl Levin, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Michigan who is still alive and did not serve in the U.S. military.

Mabus disregarded Navy ship-naming rules stipulating that destroyers should be named for deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, including secretaries of the Navy.

The announcement prompted a hasty inquiry from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), a former Marine, who asked Mabus to explain the decision. Hunter expressed concern in a Tuesday letter to the Navy secretary that the decision could constitute a "politicization" of the ship-naming process.

"I would like an explanation as to how this decision properly reflects Navy ship-naming rules," Hunter wrote, citing a new report from the Congressional Research Service laying out the service’s ship-naming rules. "It is important that the Navy adhere to its own ship naming rules and take every effort necessary to avoid politicization of this process."

Hunter cited recent exceptions that Mabus has made to name destroyers after Thomas Hudner, a living retired Navy officer, Paul Ignatius, a living former secretary of the Navy, and former Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat who served in the Army and died in 2012.

Historically, the Navy has rarely named military ships for living people. According to the report released this month, at least 18 U.S. ships have been named for living people, seven of which have been announced since 2012 and three just this year. Mabus, who was appointed secretary by President Obama in May 2009, has broken tradition by naming seven naval ships after living people.

Mabus came under fire in 2011 for naming a supply ship in memory of labor leader Cesar Chavez. Hunter at the time argued that the decision seemed to be "more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition."

A July 2012 Navy report to Congress on the naming of ships reaffirmed the tradition of naming destroyers for deceased U.S. naval leaders, though it also stated that "a Secretary’s discretion to make exceptions to ship-naming conventions is one of the Navy’s oldest ship-naming traditions."

The Navy secretary has traditionally selected and announced the names for naval ships under the direction of the president. The secretary also takes nominations and suggestions from the Chief of Naval Operations and Naval Historical Center and invites input from Congress.

"There have been exceptions to the Navy’s ship-naming rules, particularly for the purpose of naming a ship for a person when the rule for that type of ship would have called for it to be named for something else," the CRS report explains. "Some observers have perceived a breakdown in, or corruption of, the rules of naming Navy ships."

Capt. Patrick McNally, a spokesman for Mabus, told the Washington Times that the secretary can "deviate" from the ship-naming rules, which he described as "guidelines."

"He names ships for American heroes and considers Senator Levin’s long commitment to the nation worthy of recognition …. The naming conventions are guidelines set by the secretary. He can deviate from them if he desires," McNally stated.

Mabus called the naming of the the USS Carl M. Levin a "great honor" in a statement Monday.

"It is a great honor to name this ship in recognition of such a dedicated public servant. I have no doubt that all who serve aboard her will carry on the legacy of service and commitment exemplified by Carl Levin during his storied career," Mabus stated.

Levin served 36 years in the U.S. Senate and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee for nine years. Hunter noted in his letter that Levin served "honorably" as "a strong advocate for our men and women in uniform."

Morgan Chalfant   Email Morgan | Full Bio | RSS
Morgan Chalfant is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Free Beacon, Morgan worked as a staff writer at Red Alert Politics. She also served as the year-long Collegiate Network fellow on the editorial page at USA TODAY from 2013-14. Morgan graduated from Boston College in 2013 with a B.A. in English and Mathematics. Her Twitter handle is @mchalfant16.