Lawmakers heard from two experts Tuesday who warned that granting another waiver to a recently retired general to serve as defense secretary weakens American norms.
Several Democratic senators say they will vote against granting a waiver for Lloyd Austin. President-elect Joe Biden has said he'll nominate the retired Army general officer, who fought in Iraq and oversaw all military missions in the Middle East, to lead the Pentagon.
Austin retired in 2016. By law, anyone serving as defense secretary must have been out of uniform for at least seven years unless they have a waiver from Congress.
Several senators, including Biden's former colleagues in Congress, say the move won't get their vote after a waiver was granted to Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump's defense secretary, in 2017.
"The reason for the principle of civilian control is not only to protect our democracy against military interference, it is to protect the military against excessive interference -- political partisan interference --that may jeopardize the professionalism and effectiveness of our military," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and Marine Corps veteran.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and former National Guard officer, said she doesn't believe the seven-year rule is long enough.
"The military is a much smaller community than it may seem to people who haven't served," she said. "Especially as service members make their way up the ranks and that pyramid gets steeper and steeper."
A newly retired general is likely to have personal relationships with most of the military's highest-ranking leaders, Duckworth added, which "puts them in a difficult situation."
Duckworth first stated in December that she planned to oppose a waiver for Austin.
Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the Naval War College who studies civilian-military relations, said giving Austin a waiver so soon after Mattis received one sets "a dangerous precedent." When members of Congress considered a waiver for Mattis, she noted, it was said to be a once-in-a-generation exception.
"I think that this chamber has a very difficult decision in front of it to decide whether the reasons that the president-elect has given, and the reasons that you all can think of yourself, justify printing another waiver," Cohn told senators.
Biden has defended his decision to select Austin to be his future defense secretary nominee.
"I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military," he said last month. "So does the secretary-designee Austin. He'll be bolstered by a strong and empowered civilian sector and senior [officials] working [Defense Department] policies and to ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people."
Cohn and Kathleen McInnis, an international security specialist with the Congressional Research Service, laid out potential fallout if military officers more routinely move into the defense secretary role, which they say is inherently political.
The seven-year "cooling-off period" required before a military member can serve as defense secretary helps reduce their reliance on uniformed networks, Cohn said.
McInnis noted that Mattis faced criticism from some for relying more on military colleagues for information and advice than he did Defense Department civilians. DoD civilians have, in recent years, had their voices "relatively muted," she added.
"They are there to do the day-to-day work of civilian oversight of the military," McInnis said. "They work with their counterparts overseas to understand political and military dynamics that might impact national security. They go to war zones and help military commanders really understand the secretary's intent. They are where the rubber meets the road of civilian-military relations."
Several members of Congress have expressed support for Austin's selection as the future defense secretary nominee and indicated they will support a waiver approval. It is noteworthy, though, that members of Biden's party are taking a stance against it.
As Blumenthal put it, "It is a matter of principle."
"I have immense respect and admiration for General Austin," he said. "... It's not personal."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also said she plans to vote against a waiver for Austin, though she added that if Congress grants one, she'll consider his nomination independently on its merits.
If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary. Lawmakers on Tuesday noted the importance of having a defense secretary who represents those in the ranks, something Cohn echoed in her testimony.
"The importance of the fact that he would be a Black man in a very visible position of authority, trust and responsibility, should not be underestimated," she wrote. "As scholars like Meg Guliford have noted, the national security world has thus far done a poor job of fostering the advancement of people of color to leadership positions, and of making it a world that is inviting to young people of color."
Austin will appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Jan. 21 to discuss civilian control of the military, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said last week.