Both needed a congressional waiver to be upheld because they had not been out of uniform for the required seven years.
“I’m concerned that this trend is going in the wrong direction,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., A retired Navy intelligence officer and sponsor of the change, in an interview. “It’s going in the direction that violates the military’s civilian control.”
Gallagher, who voted against an exemption for Austin earlier that year, said he feared what was once extremely rare will become the norm, “from presuming opposition for former senior officers to accepting approval.”
Gallagher pointed out that before Mattis was confirmed as Secretary of Defense in 2017, only one retired general needed a waiver to fill the top civilian job. That was George Marshall in 1950, just a few years after the position of Secretary of Defense was established.
“I think Congress needs to send a message that the bar is too low and we need to raise the bar,” he said.
The original law that banned retired officers from serving as ministers of defense provided for a ten-year “grace period”, but in 2008 it was reduced to seven years.
The new move to change this again, which would correspond to the rank of retired colonel or above, was welcomed by a number of scholars who warned that the tradition of civilian control of the military has been partially eroded in recent years by rely too heavily on recently retired officers to serve as civilian chief.
“It is an excellent idea to extend the time after active duty before someone becomes a secretary so that they can gain experience alongside their military service,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the Hawkish American Enterprise Institute.
However, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, including House Panel Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
“I don’t think it’s a huge problem,” said Smith, who voted against the amendment, during the committee debate. “If the Commander-in-Chief finds someone who wants to become Secretary of Defense within five, six or seven years, and a majority of Congress in the House and Senate approves, I don’t think we should rule that option out.
“Mr. Gallagher makes a decent argument,” added Smith. “I just think we shouldn’t make it much harder.”
Others agreed, including Republican Don Bacon (Neb.), A retired Air Force brigadier general. “I do not want to make it difficult for the president to choose the best person to be defense minister while he is retired,” he said in the debate.
Guy Snodgrass, a former Navy officer who served as speechwriter for Mattis, also called it a “bad change”.
“Why would you remove men and women who have devoted their entire lives to the civil service and are experts in national security from running for the highest national security post in our nation?” he asked in an interview. “Ultimately, we need flexibility to attract the most talented and qualified people. Limiting the pool of candidates is the definition of discrimination.”
But Gallagher’s pitch quickly gained momentum when the House of Representatives recorded the Defense Policy Act. “It is clearly a new precedent,” said Utah Republican Blake Moore of the appointment of retired generals to head the Pentagon. “So if we want civil control to be the rule here, the standard, this is one approach. Otherwise, it will be eroded.”
Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations scholar at Duke University who served on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush, also said extending the cooling off period could have other benefits for former officers.
He noted that the original decision by Congress to curtail the civilian role of recently retired generals so soon after World War II was also to “ensure that we do not have those responsible who would wage the final war,” he said.
The proposal is likely to attract some influential supporters in the Senate, where Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has expressed reservations about allowing exemptions for retired generals to run the Pentagon.
The House and Senate committees will eventually have to vote on their competing defense bills this fall.