Cummings’ departure comes after the Biden administration’s pick for the job, Michael Brown, withdrew from the exam on Tuesday due to an ongoing Inspector General investigation into hiring practices in his current role as Head of the DoD Defense Innovation Unit.
Brown denied any wrongdoing and, in a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, objected to a whistleblower complaint that the office was unethical in its hiring practices and pay, first detailed by Defense One.
The Acquisition and Sustainment Office oversees the development of new weapons and plays a leading role in the industrial base. In recent years, he has led the struggle to keep Chinese investments and components out of weapon systems.
Offices can operate with officials confirmed not by the Senate at the top, but they can only serve for a time limited by law, creating an opt-out in the transfer to other acting officials, or the eventual confirmed choice of the White House. Politically appointed people can also set long-term direction in a way that is difficult for temporary leaders.
The Biden administration has been slow to announce candidates for the 58 Senate-confirmed positions in the Pentagon, with just six of those positions having been filled so far while another 20 candidates await Senate votes. In total, 27 positions still do not have a candidate.
The Biden administration highlighted the overall disorganization of the Trump team and its attempts to stop or slow down the transition in the weeks leading up to the January 20 handover. Members of Congress also played a role, suspending several candidates and forcing Senate leaders to undertake time-consuming procedural motions to secure votes.
The snail pace of staff at the Pentagon has alarmed some national security observers, who fear the massive modernization tasks facing the department, as well as the debate over how best to confront China and Russia while listening to the fight against terrorism, may be hampered by the lack of political appointments throughout the building.
“I would have hoped that the current administration was not as dysfunctional as the previous one, but it now looks like the new normal,” said William Greenwalt, senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute and former deputy assistant secretary for the defense for industrial policy in the Bush administration. “It shows how broken the current nomination and confirmation process is for the DoD.”
It’s not just the White House. A sign of the Senate bottleneck, lawmakers have not approved a Pentagon candidate for Biden since May 28, while several prominent candidates, such as the Secretary of the Air Force and the head of the internal bureau assessment costs, remain trapped by the holdbacks placed. by Senators for reasons unrelated to their qualifications or job descriptions.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed (DR.I.) has made an effort in recent months to hold hearings on as many pending candidates as possible. The panel approved a dozen candidates who are awaiting confirmation votes across the Senate and have seen no action in recent weeks.
The Trump administration has come under heavy criticism for the slowness with which it filled positions, or the way it staffed critical positions with acting officials without the intention of appointing them.
In 2017, the acquisition position was not filled until August, when Ellen Lord was confirmed, and the research and engineering position was taken over by Mike Griffin in February of the following year. This could be reversed under Biden, with the research and engineering post to be filled by Heidi Shyu once the Senate votes in full on her nomination, but with no acquisition candidates in sight.
While much of the development and procurement of new weapon systems has shifted to services in recent years, this has not diluted the power and importance of acquisition and sustainment offices. of the Pentagon, who are responsible for setting general direction and priorities for the entire department.
Of the seven Senate-confirmed positions in the Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment wing, to date, only Deborah Rosenblum has been appointed deputy secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. She is awaiting confirmation in the Senate.
Among the services, the secretaries of the air force and the navy are still awaiting their votes in the Senate. The Biden team on Friday named Andrew Hunter as the Air Force’s top procurement official. Hunter would bring to the job a long procurement resume, having served during the Obama administration as chief of staff to Ash Carter and Frank Kendall, when each was the DoD’s chief procurement officer. Kendall is awaiting his vote in the full Senate as Secretary of the Air Force.
The army and the navy are still without acquisition candidates.
With vacancies and candidates waiting for the Senate to take action, timing is becoming increasingly important. Lawmakers will be leaving the city in two weeks for a month-long summer break, making it unlikely that there will be a political appointment to any of the acquisition positions until the fall at the earliest.
By waiting that long, “you’ve lost incredible momentum,” Greenwalt said. “You’ve lost an incredible amount of ability to change the direction of the department, and that’s just a really, really problematic thing.”