Trump’s Defense Secretary Pick Promises Efficiencies Among Civilian Workforce

Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis listens to a question during his confirmation hearing Thursday. Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis listens to a question during his confirmation hearing Thursday. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President-elect Donald Trump’s likely Defense Department secretary pledged on Thursday to trim the size of the bureaucracy at the Pentagon, but said the cuts should be based on practical assessments rather than arbitrary figures.

James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps General and former commander of U.S. Central Command, said he has a “reputation for reducing bureaucracy” in a written response to advance policy questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Prior to his confirmation hearing Thursday, lawmakers asked Mattis whether he supported efforts to cut the civilian workforce at Defense.

“I believe bureaucracy should be at the minimal level required to accomplish assigned tasks,” Mattis said in his response. The retired general, who will require a waiver from Congress to bypass a statute requiring a seven-year buffer period before a uniformed military member can serve as Defense secretary, noted the importance of maintaining civilian control of the department. He also highlighted the importance of career civil servants.

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“The Pentagon’s staff has evolved and grown over time because of efforts to limit contracted support, and to ensure that inherently governmental functions are performed by federal employees,” Mattis said. He said any cuts should be “based on assessments of the workforce needed” to carry out missions.

Each of the last two annual defense authorization bills included provisions to put into statute department plans to cut by 25 percent civilian staffing in management offices. They also put a cap on the number of Senior Executive Service personnel, as well as general and flag officers, Defense could employ. Mattis said he did not yet have a “refined understanding” of how to reach those cuts, but said he would work with Congress to do so.

“I am aware that the department has a plan to comply with the statutory requirement, and if confirmed I would appreciate the committee’s support if we request additional tools to meet reduction targets though other more creative means,” he said. Defense has previously relied upon early retirement benefits, buyout incentives and a partial hiring freeze to make the reductions. A 2015 Government Accountability Office report found Defense cut its total civilian workforce by 3.3 percent between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, but the reductions did not correspond to savings in personnel costs.

Mattis also promised to “pursue reforms to the civilian personnel system” to grow the workforce where needed to address “evolving challenges facing the nation.”  

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