No doubt the last month has seen its share of political news. Whether consumed by debates over COVID-19 relief, the Capitol attack, or the inauguration of President Joe Biden, even the 24-hour news cycle has struggled to keep up.
Lost in the wake of these events is another that drew significant media attention not even a month ago: On January 1, the outgoing Congress flexed its muscles and succeeded in overriding Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The vote was the first — and only — override to take place during the four years of the Trump presidency.
One might ask why the passage of a law that is enacted every year should be so noteworthy. After all, the president’s veto stemmed from opposition to renaming military bases named for Confederate generals, and for not including language overturning Section 230 — hardly significant policy deviations from previous years.
But as is often the case with large, “kitchen-sink” pieces of legislation, the devil is in the details. While the primary purpose of the NDAA is to set the top-line level of spending for the Defense Department, the bills typically contain dozens of additional provisions and amendments that impose Congress’s will on the military’s top brass.
Such was the case this year, too.
Tucked away on page 1,031 in Section 902 of Subsection A of Title IX of the conference language was this small paragraph mandating a seemingly insignificant organizational change at the Pentagon:
“Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act — each duty or responsibility that remains assigned to the Chief Management Officer of the Department of Defense shall be transferred to an officer or employee of the Department of Defense designated by the Secretary of Defense, except that any officer or employee so designated may not be an individual who served as the Chief Management Officer before the date of the enactment of this Act.”
What may appear as the elimination of a relatively minor role by the bill is actually the complete dissolution of the third-highest civilian post at the Pentagon. First created in 2007, the position of chief management officer, or CMO, was elevated by Republicans in 2018 to report directly to the Secretary of Defense. The job was most recently held by Lisa Hershman, a businesswoman who first served in an acting capacity before eventually being confirmed in December 2019.
Just one year later, the language in the 2021 NDAA, inserted by former Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry, eliminated the position, oddly excluding Hershman from carrying out any of the responsibilities ever again.
Thornberry’s win promises to be the taxpayer’s loss.
The office of the CMO catalogued more than $37 billion in savings between 2018 and 2021. While that’s only about 1 percent of the Pentagon’s budget over that time, savings increased each year despite the office itself still being relatively new. In FY 2019 alone, the savings identified by Hershman’s office was 138 percent of that found in the previous two years combined.
“It’s hard to understand how the most successful reform effort in history is essentially being eliminated,” Hershman told Defense News shortly after the NDAA language was released in early December. “It’s disappointing. I’m not exactly sure what or who [defense committee leaders] were listening to.”
Unsurprisingly, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper was one of Hershman’s biggest fans, frequently backing the office’s work in public statements and ultimately expanding her role in crafting the Pentagon’s own budget requests. Even senators at polar ends of the spectrum like Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren supported Hershman’s efforts. This was a stark change from the treatment of her predecessor, Jay Gibson, who was iced out after seven months over a turf battle involving then-deputy defense secretary Patrick Shananan, a former Boeing executive.
But she also was not without detractors. As Bloomberg Government noted last month, “military departments told the [Defense Business Board] the CMO provided no benefits and hindered their missions.” It was the Defense Business Board’s report that Rep. Thornberry ultimately used as justification for inserting the language into the NDAA, telling Bloomberg, “It is really hard to read that report and say, ‘Yeah, we ought to give this a few more years.’”
From the standpoint of the Pentagon, the work of the CMO is valuable because every penny gets reinvested in Defense Department operations. But for fiscal hawks, this value is even more important, because savings identified today also helps put downward pressure on wasteful spending in the future.
In debates over waste at the Pentagon — and indeed, in the government writ large — there are typically two competing schools of thought. One argues that programs have to be fundamentally reassessed and ended altogether, like trimming the fat from a juicy filet. In the context of the Pentagon, that means rethinking foreign policy decisions and military strategy and then eliminating the spending that supports unnecessary initiatives.
But another school sees waste woven into the very fabric of government departments, the equivalent of fat marbled throughout the steak. Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two ways of thinking, and the CMO was tasked exclusively with addressing the latter.
Ultimately, achieving true savings at the Pentagon requires rethinking military strategy and designing programs that reflect a more appropriate series of objectives. But reducing Pentagon spending isn’t an either/or proposition. It entails working to root out outdated programs, procedures, and waste anywhere and everywhere it exists.
For those of us who want a Pentagon based on realism rather than largesse, having someone fighting on the inside to make operations more efficient only makes us stronger. Here’s hoping Biden embraces an idea that has attracted — and should continue to attract — bipartisan support, and brings the CMO back to its rightful place at the highest level of Department of Defense.