For months, Senator Tommy (“Coach”) Tuberville (R-AL) has blocked all nominations of generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces. His reason for doing so is that he objects to a Pentagon policy that would permit women in uniform to travel at government expense if they wish to obtain reproductive healthcare that is forbidden in the state in which they are stationed.
The pushback from the service secretaries and other opponents of Tuberville’s stance has been firm, as it should be. Women in the service have enough problems as it is, without also having to worry about whether they will, if the need arises, be able to obtain healthcare that, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision and the response of numerous red states, is only available if they travel to another state.
The silence of many of Tuberville’s fellow Republican senators in response to this one-man hijacking of the normal process for filling the military’s highest ranks presents the Senate with a profound institutional crisis. The grab bag of practical arguments proffered in response to his actions have obscured this fact.
For example, it has been claimed that blocking the nominations is unfair to the families of the senior officers whose promotions have been held up. This is frustrating to those families, to be sure, but it is hardly the end of the world. Eventually those promotions that are in limbo will come through, although officers may lose out on some pay (though it is worth bearing in mind that many senior officers are topped out on the military pay table, so there may be little or no difference in their paychecks).
It is true that it is not desirable that senior officer positions be filled only on an acting basis. But this, too, is hardly a crisis. Anyone who makes flag or general officer rank in the first place is (with rare exception) certain to be both talented and industrious, as well as courageous. Those traits, and the fruits of their education (typically including one or more government-funded graduate degrees) will be put to good use whether they are in their position permanently or only on an acting basis. It would surprise me if subordinates were less supportive of an acting service chief than of a confirmed one, or if they felt freer to slow roll or erect obstacles to actions or policies that were directed by a mere acting service chief. Naturally, if the Tuberville hold leads to a series of short-term acting service chiefs, personnel turbulence at the top could in time become problematic.
Some have suggested that the lack of a confirmed Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, or other service chief is bad news because overarching strategic decisions about service direction and priorities cannot be made. This seems doubtful. Without in any way minimizing the important role a service chief plays – both in high-level decision making and in modeling personal conduct – important decisions are the product of a deep institutional bench that will have included those in charge on an acting basis. The civilian service secretaries can also provide continuity of leadership, consistent with the country’s tradition of civilian control of the military. For its part, Congress is also deeply involved in major military decisions through legislative oversight and the appropriations process. It is hard to imagine that a major shift in, say, the Army’s priorities would be one thing with an acting Chief of Staff and something very different with a confirmed Chief of Staff. Contrary to one Republican congressman’s claim, the hold is not “paralyzing the Department of Defense.”
That is not to say there are no negative consequences from the Tuberville hold. Management of the overall officer corps in each branch is a serious challenge even on a good day. Do we have enough lieutenant commanders? Do we have too many colonels? Is the promotion opportunity for any particular year group being affected? Is the pipeline full so the Department of Defense will not be caught short if we need to ramp up for operational reasons? These are real questions, and they are impacted by Senator Tuberville’s ploy. If the up-or-out promotion system is blocked at the most senior level, there will, in time, be downstream effects on the officers corps. Morale can suffer, and with it, retention. This is not desirable, especially given the recruiting challenges the armed forces are experiencing.
But these arguments, while valid, distract attention from the real issues presented by the Tuberville hold, of which there are two. One is the specific problem presented by Senator Tuberville. The leadership of the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, needs to “read him the Riot Act” more loudly. But the more profound problem is the generic one about the power of individual senators to obstruct the Senate’s normal business in pursuit of a personal crusade. Military nominations are certainly important, but they are hardly the only pressure point on which Senators bent on making trouble might try to capitalize. Other confirmations have also been held up (e.g., Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) on certain diplomatic nominations. See also the Senate’s refusal to afford then-Judge Merrick Garland a hearing on his nomination to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court). Legislation can be held up and government shutdowns may be plotted – all for reasons having little or nothing to do with the matter being blocked and everything to do with the personal ambitions of the responsible senators.
For better or worse, under the Constitution states have equal representation in the Senate, regardless of population discrepancies. But the American people should not be stuck with the kind of legislative blackmail that the Senate’s rules and customs increasingly invite. A good starting point would be to return to the parliamentary lodestar of majority rule, even in a malapportioned body. This is on the Senate.