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Blumenthal: Waiver of Civilian Control of the Military Defies Bedrock Principle of Our Democracy

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted against legislation that would allow a one-time exception to waive the “cooling off period” for recently retired military officers for the Secretary of Defense.

“The rule of civilian control in the Pentagon is profoundly important – enshrined in our Constitution. Lessening or weakening this bedrock principle of our democracy should only occur under the most unique and exigent circumstances. After listening to lengthy testimony on this issue, I am not convinced that this case meets that very high bar and I am deeply concerned that the waiver legislation was structured in such a way that sets a very dangerous precedent,” Blumenthal said. “Although I have deep respect for General Mattis and his service to our country, my vote today was about the principle, not the individual. We cannot allow the exception to swallow the rule.”

Although the legislation will only apply to the first nominee for Secretary of Defense under the new Administration, Blumenthal expressed grave concern about the dangerous precedent it sets and the lack of a compelling argument to break with the foundational element of our nation since its inception based on principle and not on the individual. The legislation was approved in the Senate Armed Services Committee by a vote of 24-3 and in the full Senate by a vote of 81-17. Video of Blumenthal speaking about this issue during Committee proceedings is available upon request.

Blumenthal’s full statement for the record, submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee, is available below.


U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)

Statement for the Record

Senate Armed Services Committee

We are faced with a serious challenge to a bedrock principle of our democracy – civilian control of the military – with the vote we are about to take. I urge my colleagues to remember that this vote is about the principle, not an individual. I want to ensure my colleagues have thoroughly considered this important distinction before breaking with this foundational element of our nation since its inception.

I respect General Mattis and his service to our country, having interacted with him many times through my membership on the Armed Services Committee, including just last week in anticipation of his nomination hearing. However, today’s vote cannot be about an individual – I cannot emphasize this point enough.

On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to examine civilian control of the military. I would particularly like to thank Ranking Member Reed for requesting this hearing and for the Chairman for supporting this request. While we spent two hours hearing from military historians and experts, I heard no convincing arguments based on the principle as to why Congress should be willing to waive the seven-year restriction that prevents recently retired military officers from serving as Secretary of Defense.

The central argument for supporting a waiver that emerged from this hearing came not because of the principle, but more because of the individual. We have all heard it before – the President-elect will need to be tempered, and General Mattis can be a “stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous, or illegal things from happening, and over time, helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction” – as Dr. Cohen testified at our hearing yesterday.

Yet this argument, followed to its end, fails to meet the threshold for providing a waiver because it leads down several dangerous lines of further reasoning.

I urge my colleagues to consider whether they really think Trump will be any more rational or reasonable in a year or two when we are once again likely to be considering another Secretary of Defense nominee. The answer is no. If there is one thing I can say about the President-elect, he has consistently acted in a rash manner throughout his life. And therefore, we cannot say that simply because Trump is an explosive figure that we should grant this waiver, because it will lead us to have no choice but to grant another waiver for the next Secretary of Defense – essentially destroying a bedrock principle that I continue to hold dear.

I also urge my colleagues to consider that given the idea that Trump will need to be tempered, do we really want the military to be this moderating force?  I would suggest that tampering with civilian control of the military by allowing a recently retired officer to serve invites the concern that we may over militarize our government.

In fact, this issue is already much too real – we are seeing a disturbing trend with the President-elect’s nominations of several recently retired military officers to national security positions. Who will be there to provide diversity of opinion, one that is not only heavily influenced by their military background?

My dear friend, Senator Gillibrand, raised the issue of diversity of opinion yesterday at our hearing – and I think it is important to reemphasize that without diversity of opinion, we risk missing key points and ideas being raised in matters that could become as serious as life or death.

Seventy years ago, Congress believed that a cooling off period on retiring military officers being considered for appointment as Secretary of Defense was important and necessary, making it law. As we know, to date, General George Marshall is the only person to receive a waiver – and he had already served as Secretary of State, providing him with a wealth of diplomatic experience beyond his esteemed military career.

To emphasize the uniqueness of Marshall’s waiver, Congress included a non-binding section expressing the intent that Marshall’s waiver truly was to be an exception – noting: “this Act is not to be construed as approval by the Congress of continuing appointments of military men to the office of Secretary of Defense in the future” and “no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”

As Congress is once again considering an exception to policy, I am gravely concerned that this will indeed set a precedent – showing that we are all too willing to lose faith with our core values. We cannot allow the exception to swallow the rule.

Let us not forget that civilian control of the military is enshrined in the Constitution. Article Two mandates that the President is the commander and chief of the military, and Article One provides Congress with the authority to fund the military. As members of Congress, we are also authorized to declare war and set military policy through legislation.

As I have said before, I would vote for a waiver only under the most unique and exigent circumstances. As a member of the committee that has oversight of the Defense Department, I cannot in good conscience say I have been convinced that we are in this place to waive a constitutional value. If we are ready to do this, what will be next?

This is particularly worth considering given the President-elect’s own propensity for bending, if not breaking, long-held norms and procedures and we will be reinforcing his penchant for disregarding our most fundamental rules. 

I simply ask that my colleagues consider the importance of the vote they are about to take and whether they can honestly say that a waiver is necessary before they defy the bedrock principle of civilian control.