Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I join you in welcoming Secretary Esper to this morning’s hearing. I would also like to welcome Secretary Esper’s family, including his wife Leah, and their children, Luke, John, and Kate. We are pleased you could be with us this morning.
Secretary Esper, as we review your qualifications to serve as the Secretary of Defense, I note that you have a wealth of experience in defense policy, including recent service as the Secretary of the Army. Prior to that, you also served in senior leadership positions in both the public and private sector. If confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense, your background and experience should serve you well.
It has been nearly seven months since the Department has had a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense. At no other time has the office of the Secretary remained vacant for so long. Complicating the situation is that under the Vacancies Act, Secretary Esper cannot serve as the Acting Secretary of Defense now that he has been nominated for that position. Therefore, Secretary of the Navy Spencer is serving as the Acting Secretary of Defense while the Senate considers Secretary Esper’s nomination.
Given these extraordinary set of circumstances, the Chairman and I agree that it is important to consider the nomination of Secretary Esper as expeditiously as possible. But let me be clear, his confirmation should not be a routine matter. While Secretary Esper has been performing the duties of the Secretary for the past several weeks, and has served admirably as the Secretary of the Army, the duties of the Secretary are unique. As such, I believe it is incumbent upon this Committee to vigorously vet his nomination and review his qualifications.
Secretary Esper, as we consider your nomination, we must bear in mind the national security challenges facing our country. Currently, the Department is focused on competition with near peer adversaries like China and Russia. As the Department pursues the new strategic direction established by the National Defense Strategy, Iran and North Korea remain dangerous, and the threat posed by violent extremist organizations is not diminishing. Furthermore, the Department must continue to recruit and retain high caliber individuals, while restoring readiness, and pursuing new high-end capabilities for the force.
I specifically want to raise two issues related to this committee’s duty to conduct congressional oversight of the Department. First, any effort to withhold or curtail information necessary to fulfill the committee’s oversight mandate is unacceptable. Former Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan recently promulgated a memo governing the committee’s access to certain documents, including Execute Orders (or EXORDs). The memo stated, in part, that the Trump Administration would determine which materials should be provided to Congress based on “whether the request contains sufficient information to demonstrate a relationship to a legislative function.”
Tensions often exist between the executive and legislative branches regardless of political party. However, as duly elected officials, this committee understands what information is necessary to conduct congressional oversight. We are judicious in the number of requests we make to the Department, and we rigidly control and protect the sensitivity of the information provided to us for oversight purposes.
Second, the Department must keep Congress fully and currently informed of major military developments. For example, on May 5th, the President’s National Security Adviser announced that the U.S. was deploying a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to CENTCOM in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications involving Iran. The threats were apparently significant enough not only to surge additional military capabilities in the region, but for Secretary Pompeo to cancel a meeting with German Prime Minister Merkel in order to fly to Iraq. But it took the Department of Defense more than 5 days to share any information with Congress. I find that unacceptable.
Secretary Esper, you indicated in your advance policy questions that if confirmed, you will reassess the Department’s EXORD policy. I appreciate your assurance, and I hope that you will also make a concerted effort to keep this committee fully and currently informed on critical national security developments, particularly if it involves surging additional military capabilities to a specific region. Based on our working relationship during your tenure as the Secretary of the Army, I am confident we can work together to ensure that Congress has the information it needs do its job.
Secretary Esper, as was discussed during General Milley’s confirmation hearing last week, there is a staggering number of senior level civilian vacancies throughout the Department. The constant turnover of senior civilian leadership, coupled with the duration of these vacancies, has been troubling. Every member of this committee wants to ensure that high caliber candidates serve in the Department, and we will continue to fully evaluate, and expeditiously consider, nominees for these positions.
Secretary Esper, if confirmed, your ability to effectively manage the difficult challenges facing the Department, as well as the extensive Pentagon bureaucracy, will require strong civilian leadership. I am concerned that the Defense Department is adrift in a way I have not seen in my time on Capitol Hill. Your success may even be contingent upon ensuring these civilian vacancies are filled quickly and with capable and talented individuals. It is my hope that you will work with the White House to impress upon them the importance of filling these positions.
Finally, let me close with the following. If confirmed, you will help oversee national security policy for a President whose temperament and management skills are challenging, and likely very different from your own. While I do not agree with the President on most policy issues, I do want him to be surrounded by leaders who can provide thoughtful advice and counsel. Diversity of opinion is important when crafting policy and making decisions that impact the wellbeing of our men and women in uniform. If confirmed, you must be willing and able to provide the President with your best policy advice even if the President disagrees with your counsel, and it runs contrary to his policy goals.
But most importantly, while the Secretary of Defense serves at the pleasure of the President, we should never forget that they also oversee the finest fighting force in the world. Men and women who have volunteered to serve a cause greater than themselves. Our servicemembers, and their families, should always be at the forefront when considering defense policy or military action. Secretary Esper, if confirmed, I am confident that you will do so.
Again, I thank you Mr. Chairman for holding this hearing, and I look forward to hearing from our nominee.