US Marine Corps Lacks Senate-Confirmed Leader as Senator Stalls Nominations Over Pentagon Abortion Policy

US Marine Corps Lacks Senate-Confirmed Leader as Senator Stalls Nominations Over Pentagon Abortion Policy
The U.S. Department of the Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, seal hangs on the wall at the Pentagon in Washington on Feb. 24, 2009. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
Ryan Morgan

The United States Marine Corps is without a senate-confirmed leader amid an impasse between the Department of Defense and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) over military policies on abortion.

On Monday, Gen. David Berger relinquished his command as the commandant of the Marine Corps. Gen. Berger was replaced by Gen. Eric Smith, who is assuming the role of the Marine Corp’s Chief of Staff in an acting capacity while the Senate remains unable to confirm new military nominees.

President Joe Biden nominated Gen. Smith to serve as the top uniformed Marine on May 31, but he is just one of more than 200 military officers whose nominations remain stalled in the U.S. Senate at the moment.
In December, Mr. Tuberville announced he would stop the Senate from proceeding with large batches of military nominations after the DOD adopted a policy to fund travel and leave for military service members who elect to get an abortion but are legally constrained in the states in which they’re stationed. The DOD adopted this abortion policy last year after numerous U.S. states began constraining abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Mr. Tuberville’s contention has been that the new DOD abortion policy conflicts with an existing U.S. law that bars the DOD from using taxpayer funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother.

Mr. Tuberville’s block prevents the Senate from approving military nominees in large batches through unanimous consent, instead requiring them to go through slower regular order procedures.

The Alabama Republican has vowed to maintain the block on the nomination process until the DOD either ends the abortion policy or Congress changes the laws surrounding abortions in the military. “If Democrats can’t pass legislation to authorize the abortion policy, then it shouldn’t be the policy,” Mr. Tuberville wrote in The Washington Post last month.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who implemented the new abortion policy in October, alluded to the ongoing impasse during Gen. Berger’s command relinquishment ceremony on Monday.

“I know that everyone here is looking forward to the rapid confirmation of a distinguished successor to General Berger,” the defense secretary said. “You know, it’s been more than a century since the U.S. Marine Corps has operated without a Senate-confirmed commandant. Smooth and timely transitions of confirmed leadership are central to the defense of the United States, and to the full strength of the most powerful fighting force in history. Stable and orderly leadership transitions are also vital to maintaining our unmatched network of allies and partners and they’re crucial for our military readiness.”

Mr. Austin also said military families “shouldn’t be weighed down with any extra uncertainty” and then expressed his confidence that the Senate “will meet its responsibilities.”

What Happens Without a Confirmed Commandant?

In comments to Defense One last month, Gen. Smith said that as the acting Marine Corps Commandant, he'd have all but a few of the authorities of a fully senate-confirmed commandant.

“I can’t live in the [commandant’s house], can’t use a security detail,” Gen. Smith said at the Modern Day Marine Expo in Washington on June 29. “I can’t write a commandant’s planning guidance because I am not the commandant.”

While he can’t author a commandant’s formal planning guidance, Gen. Smith said “I can give guidance to the force as the acting commandant, but it does not carry the same weight.”

Gen. Smith, who has been confirmed as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, would actually have to simultaneously continue the assistant commandant role and fill the acting commandant responsibilities.

Gen. Berger told CNN that it will be difficult for Gen. Smith to juggle both positions.

“He’s going to have to do his job in a very different way than I was able to, because I could travel, he was here, he could travel, I was here,” the outgoing commandant said. “Now [there’s] only one of him, so it affects the way he does his job.”

In addition to Gen. Smith’s limitations, the hold on military nominees is having impacts on leadership down the line. Gen. Berger said the inability of the United States to promote new leaders could hurt its reputation with its allies.

“When the world leader can’t promote its officers on a regular basis—kind of like when [you] can’t pass a budget—confidence goes down,” Gen. Berger said.

The outgoing Marine Corps commandant has said the holdup on nominations and promotions has led him to ask other service members to put off their retirement plans.

Mr. Tuberville defended his continued hold on military nominations, writing in the Post that it is “not affecting readiness.”

“Acting officials are in each one of the positions that are due for a promotion,” Mr. Tuberville added. “The hold affects only those at the very top—generals and flag officers. The people who actually fight are not affected at all.”

Mr. Tuberville also argued that Senate Democrats could technically proceed with confirming military nominations through the regular order procedures.

“I am not stopping anyone from getting confirmed, and I am not stopping anyone from voting,” he wrote in the Post. “Democrats could simply put these nominations up for a vote, but they clearly don’t want to. Instead they wasted hours of Senate floor time trying to harangue me into letting the nominations pass through unanimous consent. This tactic hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. I am more than happy to vote on these nominations, and I would probably vote for many, if not most, of them.”