Opinion | Senate should end Tuberville’s military roadblock

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Michelle J. Howard is a retired four-star admiral. She was the 38th vice chief of naval operations from 2014 to 2016.

The main entrance to the Pentagon (reserved for the highest level of visitors) is appropriately paneled in dark wood. Among the first items one sees upon arrival are the photos of the Defense Department civilian and military leaders.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, heads of the services, are hung in a group. When Marine Corps Commandant David H. Berger relinquished his office in July, his photo was taken down but not replaced. Now, there is a blank black spot. The spot is empty because the position of commandant is vacant. Berger’s nominated relief, Gen. Eric M. Smith, has not been confirmed by Congress and is plugging the hole as “acting” commandant. No portrait will be displayed until he is confirmed.

Another photo was blacked out on Aug. 4, when the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. James C. McConville, departed. Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, relinquishes his office on Aug. 14. There are more empty spots threatened — visual reminders that absence matters. The Joint Chiefs is a team, and holes in the organization have impact.

One man, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), is clearing the wall with his blanket refusal to allow military promotions to be voted on as a way of forcing change in Defense Department policies. The department funds travel for military members who seek out-of-state abortions.

Tuberville’s power arises from the traditional courtesy of senatorial “holds,” a primary tool senators use to engage the Defense Department and other agencies on issues of importance to them. But holds have not been turned against the Joint Chiefs in this manner since the services were reorganized after World War II. Tuberville has also stated that his holds on promotions do not impact military readiness. Here he is wrong. And he, of all people, should know that.

Tuberville is an award-winning college football coach who led Auburn to an SEC championship and a Sugar Bowl win. He understands teams and the human dynamics that make a winner. It is amazing that a head coach would minimize the impact of missing positions on a team. Team leaders can make the difference between a winning and losing organization. Why would you gap your quarterback?

What sort of coach would force the concept that other players can fill the quarterback’s position by dividing up the responsibilities?

It’s not clear that Tuberville understands all the rules of the game he’s now playing. Just as football allows only certain players to catch a pass or move before the snap, the military, by law, limits the authority of officers whose promotions have not been voted on.

Tommy Tuberville: My hold on military nominees doesn’t affect national security

The Defense Department is attempting to cover holes the senator is creating by having two-star officers and below “act” as leaders of organizations. As members of the Joint Chiefs leave their offices, their deputies become the “acting” chiefs. However, when the acting chiefs are also awaiting Senate confirmation, restraints in the law prevent them from employing the full authorities of their offices. As nominees, they cannot presume confirmation with their activities.

The situation Tuberville has created is not as simple as sending in a backup quarterback. It’s more like telling the substitute, “You’re going on to the field. Whatever you do, DON’T PASS! And by the way — there is no backup for you.”

The coach who plays a team and deliberately leaves spots empty must take ownership of the results. At the postgame news conference, no coach would embarrass himself by stating, “I know I didn’t field a full squad, but that didn’t impact the readiness of the team.”

And this is no game. The gaps in our chain of command take a larger toll on America’s military readiness with each passing week.

Coach Tuberville would never have permitted the political views of one coach or player to interfere with the performance of the Auburn Tigers. When Congress returns from recess in September, it’s time for the Senate to insist on the same respect for the U.S. military. We need a full team on the field.

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