Joe Biden’s choice of retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin for secretary of defense has raised concern in Congress. US law mandates a Pentagon chief must not have served in the military for over seven years before taking the position, and Austin retired from the Army in 2016.
Due to the law, Austin must be granted a waiver in Congress. He would be just the second retired military general to need the waiver in four years, after Trump’s first Pentagon chief, Jim Mattis, was granted one in 2017. Mattis was the first retired general to be granted such a waiver since George Marshall in 1950.
Two Democratic Senators have already voiced their objection to Austin’s appointment. “I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said on Tuesday.
Blumenthal was one of 17 Democratic senators who voted against a waiver for Mattis’ appointment in 2017. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) also voted against Mattis and said he likely not vote for Austin’s waiver. “I didn’t for Mattis and I don’t think I will for him,” Tester said.
Another thing Austin and Mattis have in common is their ties to the arms industry. In 2016, Austin joined the board of Raytheon, one of the largest US defense contractors. Before Trump appointed him as secretary of defense, Mattis served on the board of General Dynamics, another major Pentagon contractor.
Last month, two progressive House Democrats penned a letter to Joe Biden, urging him not to appoint a secretary of defense who has previously worked in the weapons industry. The letter was authored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), who cited Trump’s appointment of Mattis and his successors Patrick Shanahan and Mark Esper, who also worked in the arms industry.
The letter was sent to Biden while Michele Flournoy was said to be the front runner to head Biden’s Pentagon. Flournoy serves on the board of the defense firm Booz Allen Hamilton and co-founded the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a hawkish think tank that receives hefty contributions from weapons makers.