WASHINGTON — Robert Wilkie has a chance not only to become the next Veterans Affairs secretary but also the last Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
That’s because lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee are considering revamping the position as part of a host of personnel reforms included in their draft of the annual defense authorization bill, in an effort to better focus the job on human resources responsibilities.
Talk of the new position — for now simply titled the undersecretary of defense for personnel — comes just a few weeks after President Donald Trump nominated Wilkie to take over as the permanent VA secretary. Wilkie currently serves as both the acting VA secretary and the top defense official for personnel and readiness.
Wilkie is expected to step down from the acting VA role as he goes through the Senate confirmation process; it's illegal for him to serve as both the acting secretary and the VA nominee under federal rules. If confirmed, his new Cabinet secretary post will create a vacancy at the Pentagon’s Personnel and Readiness Office.
It’s unclear how long filling that post might take. Lawmakers have frequently lamented the slow pace of department nominations from the White House over the past 16 months. White House officials have countered that Senate Democrats have purposefully slowed down the confirmation process for political reasons.
The authorization bill, which sets defense policy, isn’t expected to become law until late 2018. And it’s unclear if the reorganization of the Personnel and Readiness Office will even be considered in the final draft, since House lawmakers did not include any similar ideas in their version.
But senators involved believe that revamping the office — and distributing its readiness responsibilities to a series of other Pentagon officials — will help better focus military leaders “to guide investments in necessary capabilities, readiness, and posture for the future joint force.”
By separating the two issues and elevating defense policy officials’ role in both (included elsewhere in the measure), lawmakers hope to better focus the personnel office on issues of recruiting, retention and human capital management.
That could include a host of new officer promotion rules in the authorization draft.
The bill includes alternative promotion schedules that “remove predetermined officer promotion timelines” for certain specialties in lieu of more flexible promotion and career continuation schedules. Senate staff said the idea is to make the officer promotion rules less uniform, and allow more service-specific rules to meet the different forces’ needs.
Spot promotion authority would be extended for all ranks up to O-6. Officers in grades 0-2 or above would also be allowed to serve up to 40 years, but the measure also requires annual authorization of all mid-grade officers.
Full details of those rules are expected out early next month. The full Senate is also expected to advance the committee’s authorization measure sometime in June as well, starting negotiations between the two chambers on a final compromise bill.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.