Perhaps the third time will be the charm. On July 25, with very little fanfare, President Trump nominated his third candidate for secretary of the Army, Mark T. Esper. The nomination came a week after the Washington Examiner first reported Trump’s choice. Until he is confirmed, Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy will continue to act as secretary.
Since January, the Senate Armed Services Committee, which vets all Defense Department nominees, has averaged 28 days from the time the president submits a nomination until they hold a hearing. During that time, nominees meet with influential senators and respond to the committee’s written questions. The Senate is in recess until Labor Day, which may delay the hearing, but expect Esper to face the SASC by mid-September.
from cadet gray to corporate gray
Esper’s nomination maintains a pattern of Trump appointing defense industry executives to high-level posts within the Pentagon. After graduating from West Point in 1986, Esper served with the 101st Airborne Division in Operation Desert Storm before earning a master’s degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. After more than a decade in uniform, he served in various staff roles on Capitol Hill and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy in the Bush Administration.
He began his lobbying career with the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents aircraft manufacturers, and later ran the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center. But for the last seven years, Ester has been Raytheon‘s Vice President of Government Relations. As such, he was the chief lobbyist for the company that makes a wide variety of missiles and radars for the DoD and for export.
“Lobbyist” tends to have a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have served as a lobbyist, and my registration remains on file, although it is inactive). When people say “I don’t like lobbyists,” they really mean “I don’t like lobbyists who advocate for positions I disagree with.” There are lobbyists for each side of every issue you could think of. Besides being a Constitutionally protected activity, lobbyists serve a valuable function.
Neither Congressmen nor their staff members can be expected to be experts in every issue that comes before them. Lobbyists, while obviously trying to persuade Congressmen to choose their side, are often the only way for them to get the information necessary to understand an issue — from both sides. While it’s true that lobbyists often write the bill by providing Congress with “suggested language,” they don’t do so in a vacuum. For every bit of suggested language on an issue, there is suggested language that does the opposite.
A cynic would be tempted to say that the winner is the one who promises a larger campaign contribution. This is nonsense. Not only is it illegal to promise a campaign contribution in return for a Congressman’s vote, the notion that Congressmen could be bought for $10,000 (the maximum a corporation’s political action committee may give to a candidate in an election cycle) is just absurd.
but is it wise to appoint defense executives?
Esper is Trump’s third senior defense official nomination to be a high-ranking defense executive. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan spent two decades as a Boeing executive. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ellen Lord was CEO of Textron. Trump’s first pick for both Army and Navy secretaries, Vincent Viola and Philip Bilden respectively, are not defense executives, but are both wealthy investors who ultimately withdrew their nominations because they found it too difficult to unwind their various business interests.
Defense executives bring important management knowledge, but even if they are former soldiers like Esper, do they bring the knowledge of how the government works to do the job? Many are questioning whether Trump’s business experience has really prepared him for his role as president, and the same can be said for defense officials.
The controversy is not new. Robert McNamara, who served as defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was one of the Ford Motor Company “whiz kids,” but ultimately became the central figure in Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s doctoral thesis Dereliction of Duty for his handling of the war in Vietnam.
This is not to say that Esper cannot run the Army. Just expect his nomination hearing to be an interesting event.