Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On Waiver Legislation for the Next Secretary of Defense

The Senate is faced with a clear but complicated choice: support this expedited legislation that will pave the way for the confirmation of the next nominee to be Secretary of Defense, or embroil one of the most consequential Cabinet positions – and with it the lives of thousands of men and women, as well as our national defense – in what would surely become a legal and legislative morass.

The Framers of the Constitution established that the Senate should provide advice and consent in the appointment of such Cabinet nominees.  Congress subsequently, in the aftermath of World War II, sought to implement limitations on who could serve as Secretary of Defense, specifically, a cooling off period for members of the military nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense.  The goal? To ensure that America’s military would remain under civilian control.  Circumventing these limitations requires an act of Congress.  It’s been done just once before, ironically almost immediately after Congress first enacted those limitations. 

In General Mattis, the President-elect – who is inexperienced in the world of military affairs and has sometimes proven rash in his public comments – has identified an able leader, who is tremendously popular and who has time and again shown himself worthy of the respect he has earned.  I believe he will be a voice of reason in the Department of Defense, and was encouraged to hear at his confirmation hearing this morning that he understands the importance of civilian control of our Defense Department, and intends to preserve that tradition.

As Senator Reed said earlier today in the Armed Services Committee, this is a once-in-a-generation waiver.  Chairman McCain similarly emphasized that he supports the law that this legislation would temporarily waive.  I do not support efforts to change the law to permanently eliminate this statutory cooling off period.  I am disappointed that the Senate Majority has insisted on creating an expedited debate on such a critical question.  I cannot support such an abrupt and accelerated revision of the law, even in the form of a one-time-only exemption.  I couldn’t support such a haphazard process, regardless of who the President, President-elect or the nominee is.

As I said in December when the Senate considered the legislation that paved the way for this rushed process today, my vote on this bill does not foreshadow my vote on General Mattis’ nomination.  I do believe that General Mattis can respect the boundaries that make our Armed Forces the strongest in the world.  I believe General Mattis will offer a critical perspective to an inexperienced and sometimes volatile incoming Commander in Chief.  And those are reasons why I believe he may receive my support when the Senate considers his nomination.

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