Ash Carter sent a letter to Capitol Hill objecting to several provisions in the NDAA, including one calling for a 25 percent SES reduction by 2019.
Reducing the number of senior executives at the Pentagon would have “widespread negative consequences” on the department’s mission-critical programs and services, the Defense secretary told the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a new letter.
In a 23-page letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Defense Secretary Ash Carter outlined a litany of concerns with the current House and Senate fiscal 2017 Defense policy bills, including a provision in the Senate version that would require the department to cut its career Senior Executive Service ranks by 25 percent by Jan. 1, 2019. Carter called the provision arbitrary and without justification, arguing that Defense has reduced the size of its SES workforce by 105 since 2010. He also said that the department operates with fewer senior executives compared to the ratio that exists between SESers and employees in the rest of the federal civilian workforce.
“DoD’s SES population is 0.17 percent of the DoD workforce (one SES member to every 586 non-SES employees), compared to the average of 0.89 percent SES members to the overall civilian workforce of the other Cabinet-level agencies, a factor of five difference,” said the July 13 letter. “Arbitrarily reducing this already low factor even further would have widespread negative consequences.” It also would demoralize the DoD’s civilian workforce “when opportunities for promotion to SES in the short- to medium-terms are severely curtailed and eliminated,” Carter wrote.
The provision in the Senate bill would exempt those SES employees considered “highly qualified experts,” limiting that designation to 200 employees, accord to the Armed Services Committee report on the fiscal 2017 NDAA. Defense – the largest department in the federal government -- has roughly 1,000 career senior executives. The measure also would not apply to “those employees of the department who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.” The House fiscal 2017 NDAA does not contain a similar provision; a congressional conference committee currently is ironing out the differences between the two versions.
Carter also sent the letter to the House Armed Services Committee.
President Obama has threatened to veto the NDAA, in part over of the provision calling for the SES reduction. (The statement from the administration actually said DoD eliminated 97 SES positions in 2011 and more than 140 positions since then.) Carter in his July letter said he would recommend the president veto both current versions of the NDAA if they reached him.
“I am surprised and disappointed about the extent to which provisions in the [House and Senate] bills could adversely affect our enterprise, to include discarding well-reasoned, necessary force management and budgetary decisions of the department’s senior, expert civilian and uniformed leaders,” Carter wrote.
The Defense secretary also took issue with other “workforce limitations” in the bills, including new restrictions on the size of the civilian and contractor workforces at DoD headquarters as well as a call for reducing general and flag officer positions and the legislation’s “micromanagement of department personnel and infrastructure.”
In addition, Carter objected to the 2.1 percent military pay raise for troops next year, which is included in the House bill, saying that “a 1.6 percent pay raise represents the best judgment of our military and civilian leaders on how to balance responsible compensation increases with our readiness and modernization needs.”
As for the House and Senate legislation’s provisions on parental and adoption leave, the Pentagon chief said many of the provisions would restrict DoD’s discretion when it comes to maternity leave, and in the case of the House version would provide more adoption leave for dual-military couples than for single-military couples, granting the former an extra benefit not available to the latter. Carter said he supports provisions that would expand parental (non-maternity) leave from 10 to 14 days, which the department had proposed as part of its Force of the Future initiative.
The majority for the House and Senate Armed Services committees did not immediately respond to questions for comment.
Jason Briefel, interim president of the Senior Executives Association, said there appears to be "little to no rationale or analysis" behind the Senate proposal to slash the department's SES ranks. "SEA applauds the Defense secretary and the administration for pushing back on this arbitrary proposal which, if enacted, would significantly undermine the department’s career leadership capacity and threaten the expertise, knowledge, stability and consistency provided by senior executives," said Briefel.