A quarter of the Pentagon’s most senior civilian posts remain filled by temporary personnel who are unconfirmed by the Senate – a high number that has slowed decisions, handicapped the department in policy disputes and shifted more power to the White House, according to recently departed Pentagon officials.
Including acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, who has served in a temporary capacity for an unprecedented 115 days, nine of the Pentagon’s 45 secretaries, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries are serving in an acting capacity or fall into a related category of officials who are “performing the duties of” the position, according to a POLITICO review.
The problem is most acute in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where Shanahan is one of eight such unconfirmed officials out of 24, including his civilian number two. The department’s number three civilian job, the chief management officer, is also filled on an acting basis.
President Donald Trump himself has said that he prefers having top officials in his administration serving in a placeholder capacity because it gives him “more flexibility.” And White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday reportedly insisted that “none of the work is impeded” at the Pentagon as a result.
But a host of Defense Department veterans, including some who have worked for the current administration, assert that the lack of permanent, Senate-confirmed civilian overseers is taking its toll on the Pentagon’s ability to operate effectively — from delaying policy reviews to undercutting Pentagon officials in administration debates.