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John McCain Goes Straight Talk Express on Defense Personnel Reform

The "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus of then-GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008. The "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus of then-GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008. AP file photo

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had some nice things to say about Defense Department employees during a recent event at a Washington think tank. But he also had a few choice words for the federal government’s hiring process and the Pentagon bureaucracy.

“Our nation is blessed by the very hardworking [people] -- both military and civilian personnel -- working in the Department of Defense,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said at the Bipartisan Policy Center in opening remarks before a June 29 discussion on Defense personnel reform. “These are patriotic Americans who wake up every day to do difficult jobs often foregoing easier careers and more lucrative opportunities because they care about the mission of keeping America safe.”

Then, the gloves came off.

“The question is whether our military is able to recruit and retain so many excellent Americans because of its personnel system, or in spite of it,” said the former Republican presidential nominee. “I’m concerned that all too often it’s the latter.” McCain, who isn’t known for pulling punches, went on to call USAJOBS – the website federal job candidates use to apply for nearly every job in government – an “abysmal failure.” To be fair, the Office of Personnel Management has been trying for years to fix the website, along with the lengthy hiring process. In February, the agency unveiled changes to the site designed to make it easier to apply for jobs and improve navigation as part of a larger, ongoing overhaul of the portal. But the government still struggles to fill jobs in a timely and streamlined way.

McCain also criticized the Defense Department structure, saying it isn’t currently organized to take full advantage of the talents the workforce brings to their jobs and the mission. “The Senate Armed Services Committee has heard repeated testimony about decision-making processes dominated by the tyranny of consensus, a perverse bureaucratic culture that too often rewards parochialism, inertia and risk avoidance,” the chairman said, adding that the Pentagon also suffers under “layers of management and rigid functional silos that force decisions to the highest level.”

McCain touted several provisions in the Senate’s fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (now in conference committee) that aim to streamline some of the Pentagon’s personnel processes, including a more flexible and merit-based promotion system for service members, and the ability to bypass the traditional federal hiring system to directly hire individuals for civilian jobs on the spot on college campuses. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently mentioned those and other reforms the department is pursuing as part of its larger Force of the Future initiative.

While he called Carter “a very hardworking and dedicated individual with an excellent background at the Defense Department,” McCain also said he worried “about how much influence Secretary Carter has at both the White House, and frankly, with the Congress,” partly because of intense partisanship on Capitol Hill these days.

When asked whether he thought the many Pentagon personnel reforms achieved during the last few years would survive after Carter leaves, McCain remarked slyly: “I think it was Jack Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs that said, ‘victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is one poor lonely bastard,’ so I’m glad to see the Pentagon taking credit for a number of the reforms that we enacted last year.”

The actual quote, attributed to Kennedy, is “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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