Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s Military Holdup, Explained

An installation of hundreds of signs representing the growing number of nominations of senior military leaders that have been held up by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, outside the U.S. Capitol on September 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer broke through a monthslong standoff Wednesday night when he pushed through a vote on the Senate floor to confirm the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Until the vote, Gen. Mark Milley’s replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as well as the top positions of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, had been caught in Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s ongoing hold on military confirmations.

Tuberville had been blocking the moves, and is still blocking hundreds more, in protest of the Defense Department’s policy of providing administrative leave and covering travel costs for service members and their dependents who must travel for access to abortion. He and other Republicans say the policy violates the Hyde Amendment, a decades-old law that bars federal funds from being used for abortions. But the Hyde Amendment doesn’t preclude the federal government from funding travel to obtain an abortion, and in October the Department of Justice released a memorandum defending the legality of the Defense Department policy. In a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican Roger Wicker, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reported that only 12 women, of approximately 230,000 eligible service members, have utilized the policy. Politico reported that a number of service members declined to use the policy for fear of reassignment or retribution.

Since Tuberville instituted his hold in March—when the policy he is protesting went into effect—Schumer has declined to hold floor votes for the senior leadership of the Marines, Army, and Navy, though the majority leader said Wednesday floor votes will come Thursday for the top Marine Corps and Army positions too. Still, the list of Tuberville’s critics has grown to include other congressional Republicans. They all say Tuberville is ultimately harming the military and national security.

Whom is Tuverbille blocking?

At last count before the Senate returned from the August recess, the Pentagon estimated Tuberville’s hold had blocked 301 positions, many of them for high-ranking officers. “The Department has 83 three- and four-star nominations pending for positions already vacated or due to rotate within the next 150 days,” the Pentagon told reporters in August. Tuberville is blocking the promotions by objecting to them being confirmed via unanimous consent—the fast-track procedure the Senate can use to pass multiple measures at once, if no senators object. Until Tuberville began his objections, it was the customary way the Senate confirmed the majority of military promotions. 

In a floor speech last week, Tuberville laid blame at the feet of Senate leadership. “If my colleagues on the left were actually worried about readiness or military families, we would be voting on these nominees today,” he said. Schumer could bring each nominee to the floor individually to circumvent the hold—which is what he did Wednesday for Milley’s replacement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown—but doing so for the hundreds of promotions still on hold would be a mammoth task. In July, the Senate Armed Services Committee estimated getting through all of the nominees would take more than 80 days of eight-hour Senate sessions, requiring Congress to vote on routine nominations of one- and two- star service members as well as the top brass. 

Historically, senior leadership positions, such as staff chiefs and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, do receive a floor vote. Milley was confirmed as the chairman of the joint chiefs 89-1 in a roll-call vote in 2019. In 2020, when Brown was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the Air Force, he was confirmed by a 98-0 roll-call vote. But until this Tuberville forced his hand this week with his own push to bring the top positions up for a floor vote, Schumer had refused floor votes for those positions because he thought doing so would incentivize other senators to adopt Tuberville’s tactics. “If everyone objected to everything, to get leverage for their pet priorities, it will grind this body to a halt,” Schumer said in a speech Wednesday.

How do we define ‘readiness’?

Tuberville’s critics say his blockade on promotions and confirmations has corroded “military readiness.” 

“Readiness” is broadly defined as the ability “to meet immediate contingency and war fighting challenges while preparing for future challenges.” To measure this, the Pentagon uses the Defense Readiness Reporting System (DRRS), which analyzes military units in four categories: personnel, equipment on hand, supply/maintenance, and training, though the specifics of this analysis are classified. 

Military readiness is typically understood as the ability to respond to threats and provocation.  In recent decades military strategy has been directed by the War on Terror. Following the military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the measurement for U.S. military readiness shifted east toward China. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine also sets it as a marker for measuring readiness. “War with either is neither inevitable nor imminent,” Milley said earlier this year. He argued that preparing for war may be expensive, but fighting a war is even more so. Readiness, then, functions as a deterrent. 

In May 2023, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a review of military readiness from 2017 to 2021—which reported increased readiness capability for ground operations but decreased capability on the sea. GAO cites a shift from a decades-long conflict in the Middle East back toward a great power competition as a challenge for the DOD to overcome as it seeks to rebuild military stockpiles and improve training and retention. 

This report does not reflect any repercussions of Tuberville’s hold, and military analysts disagree to the extent to which the holds are harming military readiness. 

“We keep mystifying China with our behavior,” Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations scholar at Duke University who served on the National Security Council in both President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s administration, tells The Dispatch. “We are trying desperately to meet the pace and challenge of China’s rapid military build up—why would we hobble ourselves this way?” The 2022 China Military Power Report, released by the Department of Defense, called China “the most consequential and systemic challenge to our national security and to a free and open international system.” 

The would-be commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith—who was set to be confirmed in a floor vote Thursday—warned of the effects of holding up promotions when he testified before the Senate in June. “When a three-star general retires … there will be a one-star general, a fairly new one, in charge of [a] 48,000-person Marine Expeditionary Force,” Smith said. “It will have an effect.”

But Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that the Biden administration “exaggerates the effect on military readiness” of Tuberville’s holds. He defines readiness as “the ability of military forces to execute the tasks they have been assigned.” Vacant positions are not left entirely empty, he points out. Most leadership positions are filled by immediate deputies, often the same people nominated to fill the position. If Milley leaves office at the end of the month before the Senate confirms Brown, the vice chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Christopher Grady, will hold both positions. The current heads of the Navy and Army are operating as both chief and vice chief concurrently. The acting commandant of the Marines is none other than the assistant commandant. 

It’s a similar argument to Tuberville’s, which is that no job is going undone because replacements for vacant positions are being named in an “acting capacity.” While functionally this means there is still someone to pick up the phone in an emergent situation, they do not have Senate approval, nor the authority to change the direction of the branch.

“They are spread more thinly, it is harder for them to do two jobs,” Cancian explains, but not impossible. “The forward deployed forces are fully able to conduct their combat operations.” 

Does Tuberville’s hold affect morale?

Earlier this month, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth—the civilian leaders of their respective branches—penned an op-ed alleging Tuberville’s actions are “putting our national security at risk” not only because of the vacancies themselves, but because the armed forces risk losing talented service members if the holds continue.  

The secretaries point to the costs incurred by the service members who have had their lives put on hold awaiting confirmations, which “include scores of combat veterans who have led our troops into deadly combat with valor and distinction.” Cancian, who is unperturbed by allegations that Tuberville’s hold will affect military retention, tells The Dispatch that families “getting ready to move, getting ready to put their kids in different schools, and now they’re on hold” is the primary detriment, as he sees it, of Tuberville’s campaign. While he contends that “military personnel are used to getting jerked around, this is just one more instance of that. It doesn’t mean we like it, but we are used to it.” 

Feaver disagrees. “At this stage we are doing serious damage to our military institutions, to military readiness … causing real harm that could have lengthy consequences,” he says. “It affects the quality of future leaders if the best people get out.”

Comments (78)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More