Military Update: The irony of the blistering attack that Brad R. Carson, the Defense Department’s top personnel official, endured last week at his confirmation hearing to become under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness is that many of his “Force of the Future” ideas might survive the likely demise of his own nomination. Even as Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee pilloried Carson, accusing him of exceeding his authority and ignoring the committee and its oversight responsibilities, no senator vigorously attacked or threatened to rollback any individual Force of the Future initiate that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has implemented in the past year, a senior Defense official noted. That was seen as a favorable sign as Carter prepares to announce a third and final package of initiatives for reforming the military personnel system, some of which the committee itself has been studying to modernize force management tools. Those ideas include developing more convenient on-and-off ramps to military service and modification or repeal of the up-or-out promotion system for officers. The first batch of Force of the Future initiatives unveiled in November were no-cost or low-cost steps the department vowed to take to work smarter to mange the force and use more modern tools to attract, nurture and assign military and civilian workers. But the second tranche of initiatives announced in February came with a cost estimated at $385 million over just the next five years. The services are to grant up to 12 weeks of maternity leave. Legislation is sought to allow 14 days of paternity leave and to expand adoption leave too. Childcare service hours are to be available at least 14 hours a day. Installations must have “mothers’ rooms” for nursing service members. The services also are to begin to pay for egg and sperm freezing (cryopreservation) for active duty service member to protect their reproductive options in case of injury. It’s a progressive agenda that irked some conservatives. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), committee chairman, told Carson the Force of the Future effort “has been an outrageous waste of official time and resources during a period of severe fiscal constraints. It illustrates the worst aspects of a bloated and inefficient defense organization.” But McCain seemed angrier over two other issues: Carson’s failure to brief the committee on these ideas, and his making decisions as acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness without Senate confirmation. McCain said that violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Carson had been under secretary of the Army until last spring when appointed to serve as acting under secretary of defense. His title was lowered in November to acting principal deputy under secretary after McCain wrote to President Obama saying Carson was violating the law. He cited a decision by U.S. Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia last August that officials nominated to jobs requiring Senate confirmation are banned by law from serving as “acting” in the same posts. “It’s a structural safeguard intended to curb executive abuses of power,” McCain told Carson. Though the court decision involved an executive elsewhere in government, McCain said, “it appears Mr. Carson’s service as the acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, from on or about July 8, 2015, violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.” Carson countered that at the time of his appointment to acting under secretary of defense, “the orthodox interpretation of the vacancies act was such that there was no legal question at all.” After McCain sent his letter, Carson explained, he was asked to resign as acting under secretary of defense, “which I did, and became the acting principal deputy. And every act I have taken since then is consistent with the role of the acting principal deputy,” he said. In no way, he added, did “I presume confirmation” to that post. “I disagree,” McCain said. Carson, he said, not only violated the law before November, he likely continued to do so as acting principal deputy. “I’m not convinced that your initial Vacancies Act violation is remedied by moving to another acting position in which you exercise all the authority and powers of the original vacant position,” McCain said. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) suggested Carson’s confirmation was at risk as a result of complaints from employees that he had created a hostile work environment in the office of under secretary. Inhofe gave no details. “I would strenuously object to this characterization. I have never heard that allegation,” Carson said. At Inhofe’s urging, Carson promised to conduct a command climate assessment. Inhofe said he would delay a vote on the nomination until its done. By one estimate the assessment could take up to six months. And regardless of outcome, it likely won’t result in Carson’s confirmation. McCain and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also grilled Carson on his relations with senior military, saying he frustrated uniformed leaders by not involving them more deeply in developing Force of the Future initiatives. “They were very engaged in it, I can assure you,” Carson said. Unfortunately for appearances, Carson saw his authority narrowed only a day after his contentious confirmation hearing. The department had recognized weeks earlier that Carson’s window to serve as acting principal deputy under secretary would hit its statutory limit of 210 days on Feb. 27. So on the 26th Defense Secretary Ash Carter signed a memorandum to Carson, explaining that he could continue to serve as senior advisor to the under secretary for personnel and readiness. He no longer is acting principal deputy but he can sign documents “as performing the duties” of that post. Carson, however, can’t perform “statutory” responsibilities of the positions he once filled, including signing of department directives and regulations. For any question he might have on the limits of his authority, he is to consult the department’s general counsel. Given a “coincidental lapse of statutory authority,” the memo was required “to ensure clear continuity of leadership” in the office of under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said Matthew R. Allen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Send comments to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120, email email@example.com or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update. # # # # Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Visit Tom Philpott's Military Update Archive to view his past articles. Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com. Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback. Buy Glory Denied from Amazon
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