Gen. David Hilberry Berger has served in the Marine Corps since 1981. At 63, he has been a company commander during Operation Desert Storm, an instructor at multiple Marine facilities, a policy planner for the Joint Chiefs, the commander of a Marine battalion during combat in Fallujah, head of Marine operations in Kosovo, and was deployed to Afghanistan as the commanding general for the 1st Marine Division.
Since 2019, Berger has been the commandant of Marines and now, after a long and distinguished career that has seen him serve in many roles in many places, he’s ready to retire. His term as commandant is scheduled to end today. In fact, his term has to end today, because that’s the law. No member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can serve more than four years except in times of war or national emergency.
But there’s a problem: No one has been named to replace Berger. Or rather, someone has been named: Gen. Eric Smith, a two-time winner of the distinguished service medal whose career also stretches back to Desert Storm. It’s just that Smith can’t be promoted to commandant because one person, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, is holding the American military hostage.
In October 2022, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the quick imposition of draconian abortion legislation by a number of Republican-controlled states, the military grew concerned about policies regarding abortion and military personnel. For the most part, abortions are not performed at military medical facilities. In theory, abortions can be done if funded from outside the government, but such procedures are rare, so the military has allowed service members to seek abortion at facilities off base.
As abortions became more restricted in several states, an alternative policy was created in which the military would reimburse service members and their families for travel to a facility in another state where abortions could be legally performed.
The policy seemed not just reasonable but designed to cause as little friction as possible between military facilities, many of which are located in southern states where the triumphant anti-abortion laws were being enacted. Military members don’t have a choice about being stationed in a state where they may not be able to obtain the health care they need, so the military would agree to see to their transport but not to their abortion costs.
And that’s the way things were for the next four months.
Then in February as the Pentagon rolled out the specifics of that policy, Tuberville decided that he had a great opportunity to pull a stunt that would put his political visibility ahead of U.S. national defense capabilities. As Politico reported at the time, Tuberville placed a hold on every promotion within the Department of Defense. That meant no promotions for civilian workers who serve in all areas of the DOD. It meant no promotions with contractors working on projects for the DOD. And it meant no promotions for all branches of the military.
Tuberville has been blocking military promotions–all military promotions–since then, demanding a change in the military policy of funding those who travel to seek abortion in exchange for taking his foot off the brake.
It’s not impossible to get a promotion confirmed with Tuberville’s hold in place, but it means what would usually be fast-tracked as a single vote devolves into a whole series of hearings and procedural votes, each of which provides its own opportunity for Tuberville to kill more time. So while it’s possible, it’s extremely difficult.
Since the hold went into effect, Tuberville has prevented the promotion of at least 250 officers, many of whom would be replacing those who have retired or moved to other roles. The inability to promote has created holes in the official structures of the military services. The inability to fill Berger’s slot at the top of the Marine Corps tree is only the most visible of several critical absences.
Many of these roles are, of course, being performed. They’re just being performed by officers who are not receiving the rank or the pay that they should. Those officers are also being denied time at rank that will affect their eventual benefits when they reach retirement. Since many of these promotions also involve a change of station, Tuberville’s action also works to cause confusion and inconvenience for their families and those of staff.
So while Tuberville’s actions aren’t affecting the pay of President Joe Biden or Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, he is directly stealing from the pockets of the officers whose promotion he is blocking. The longer this hold goes on, the more real damage it does to the military and the greater the structural strain it places on the DOD at every level. In the civilian sector, it’s likely that Tuberville has already cost the department valuable employees who see little reason to remain in an organization where a single senator can arbitrarily put a cap on their opportunities.
From the moment this began, both Democratic and Republican members of the Armed Services Committee have attempted to get through to Tuberville the kind of damage he is doing to the services—including the very important effect on morale. Tuberville doesn’t care.
No one wants to negotiate with Tuberville because what he’s doing is clearly wrong, clearly meant to do nothing but elevate his own standing with the most radical elements in his party, and clearly a threat to national security. Not even other Republicans in the Senate support him. Giving Tuberville even a crumb in exchange for this action would be opening the floodgates for any jackass to repeat this action, ad infinitum, at any time they choose.
Instead, the whole thing will likely not end until Tuberville puts his objections to the policy into real legislation and gets a vote (which he will lose), Mitch McConnell or other Republicans find some way to appease Tuberville, or Tuberville finally realizes that his stunt is putting the nation at risk.
Those last two things seem very unlikely. Unfortunately, since Tuberville knows that he would lose in an actual vote (a measure to end abortion care by the Veterans Affairs Department went down 48-51 in April), he’s unlikely to even try. Also … writing legislation is work. Why work when he can cause destruction just by doing nothing?
Mostly all of this is another signal of just how screwed up Senate procedures really are. From the filibuster to blue slips on federal judges, so much cruft has built up on the Senate that it never seems to operate at all … except on those occasions when McConnell is in charge and decides none of those rules mean squat.
Right now, the options are between dragging promotions forward one deadly slow procedural vote at a time or taking a wrecking ball to the Senate rules and ending this opportunity for putting a monkey wrench into national defense. Neither seems likely to bring much satisfaction.
One more thing: This has been going on, day after day, for five months. A single senator has been holding up promotions for all those serving the nation, many of whom have served honorably in war at great personal risk. Smith, still waiting in line to replace Berger, is a recipient of the Bronze Star. Twice. Tuberville is spitting in Smith’s eye because the Alabama senator knows he doesn’t have the votes to get his way if he took this issue to a vote.
Tuberville doesn’t care. However, he might care if the media weren’t absolutely silent about an issue that would have been the screaming lead every day on every newscast for the last five months if it were a Democratic senator doing this. But after all, Republicans are the party of national defense. Right.