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Combat vet Duckworth worried Congress is ignoring importance of civilian-run military

Rep. Tammy Duckworth worries her congressional colleagues don't fully appreciate the importance of a civilian-run military. As a combat-wounded Iraq War veteran and incoming Illinois senator, she finds that troubling.

"I believe so strongly that the military is subservient to civilian leaders," she said Wednesday. "I went to fight in a war I didn't believe I​ was one we should be engaged in, but the president and Congress believed it was the right thing to do. So I'm proud of that. I would go back.

"Every part of my being as a former military officer says what (Congress is) doing now is wrong."

Duckworth, D-Ill., is referring to legislation expected to be passed this week, which would ease the confirmation process for retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to become the next secretary of defense.

Mattis, who retired in 2013, needs a waiver from lawmakers to step into the role because federal rules mandate a seven-year gap between military service and the top civilian military job. The requirement is designed to reinforce the principle of civilian control of the U.S. military and discourage a public image of a ruling military class in charge of national security decisions.

But House Republicans this week inserted language into a must-pass budget extension bill, which would trigger automatic waiver legislation early in the next congressional session, potentially without any hearings or debate on the issue of granting such waivers.

Mattis would still need to undergo the normal Senate confirmation process, and both chambers would still need to pass the waiver, though with abbreviated debate and legislative review.

But multiple Democrats have complained the language is poorly worded, too rushed and likely unnecessary given Mattis’ good reputation on Capitol Hill. The 66-year-old served 44 years in the Marine Corps, and few lawmakers have objected to the idea of him taking over Pentagon operations.

Duckworth said she’s a fan, too.

"I have high hopes for Gen. Mattis," she said. "I was in Iraq when he was a commander. I have high hopes that maybe with him, we’ll be able to lift the Budget Control Act and work on the readiness issues that we need to make our military the strongest it can be. I admire him. I think he would be a good secretary of defense."

But she sees the legislative language as potentially undermining his term as defense secretary if it's not proceeded by an open debate over the rules regarding civilian control of the military.

"I think there is a lack of understanding of that division," she said. "I think the American public has great respect for military leaders, as do I, but that does not mean that military leaders trump the American public.

"I just think we need to proceed with caution. This really bothers me, that we’re talking about eroding a safeguard that was put in there and setting ourselves up in the future for this happening again and again."

A House vote on the issue is scheduled for Thursday, with Senate passage expected soon afterward. Duckworth has petitioned Republican leaders to drop the provision and Democratic leaders to fight to remove it, though she won’t say whether she’ll vote to shut down the government over the issue.

Regardless the outcome, Mattis is expected to face numerous questions on the issue during his Senate confirmation hearing, likely to be held next month. President-elect Donald Trump has largely remained silent on the issue, simply calling Mattis the right fit for the role.

Beyond the legislation, Duckworth wants her colleagues in both congressional chambers to think about the larger ramifications of the move and to develop a better appreciation for civilian control of the armed forces.

"I feel like we are diminishing the voice of the American people, and we’re diminishing civilian oversight of the military," she said.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com .

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