Republican lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee are expressing concerns the incoming Biden administration will force through its selection of retired general Lloyd Austin to serve as the nation's next defense secretary, according to a letter sent Thursday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) that raises questions about the nominee's sparse public record.
Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command during the Obama administration, retired in 2016 and requires a congressional waiver to serve as the Defense Department's top civilian official due to a law prohibiting military members from serving as defense secretary until they have been out of the service for seven years. Republican leaders on the Armed Services Committee urged Pelosi to grant "full deliberation for the waiver processes," citing concerns his vote "may be rushed to the House floor," according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Despite his sterling military credentials, Austin does not have a lengthy public record, and lawmakers are likely to press him on matters ranging from the growing threat posed by China to his work in the Middle East as CENTCOM's top official. The House granted retired four-star general Jim Mattis a waiver in 2017 after the White House declined to permit his testimony before the Armed Services Committee. At that time, Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the waiver, citing concerns he would sideline the department's civilian leadership. Lawmakers are concerned Austin would do the same given his background.
"Civilian oversight of our armed forces is too important to expedite," the lawmakers wrote in a letter led by Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.). The letter was signed by nine other GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, including Reps. Mike Gallagher (Wis.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Jack Bergman (Mich.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), and Mo Brooks (Ala.).
Congress has only granted such a waiver twice in its history—once in 1950 and again in 2017, when President Donald Trump selected Mattis. The seven-year delay is in place to ensure a strict division between the Pentagon's military and civilian leadership.
"Civilian oversight of our military is one of the things that makes our country great. If Speaker Pelosi fast-tracks the waiver without allowing the Armed Services Committee to even discuss it, she will have unilaterally abandoned another longstanding principle of our Republic," Banks told the Free Beacon.
Biden's transition team has yet to publicly confirm recent claims by the Armed Services Committee's Democratic leader, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), that Austin has agreed to appear before his committee prior to any vote on the waiver.
Biden press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted in early December that Austin would speak with committee members but did not agree to formal hearings in front of Congress.
"Secretary-designate Austin is looking forward to speaking with congressional leadership early on, including House leadership, and both Senate and House Armed Service Committee members," Psaki tweeted.
Smith expressed concerns last year, when Austin was first selected, "about again appointing a recently retired general to be secretary of defense." He urged Austin to "meet with the members of the House Armed Services Committee so they can ask questions about civilian control of the military, and to be assured that General Austin is committed to this important principle and understands what he will have to do to make sure it is upheld during his tenure as secretary of defense."
Joe Biden has enjoyed a close relationship with Austin since his time in the Obama administration, and said in a December op-ed explaining his pick that the military official "will do an outstanding job."
Austin led a push during the Obama administration to bring home some 150,000 American troops from Iraq. "Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly," Biden wrote.