The musical chairs of “acting” officials at the Defense Department has taken on a dizzying pace. Army Secretary Mark Esper became the acting defense secretary after Patrick Shanahan, the previous acting defense secretary withdrew his nomination for the permanent job. Esper’s move left a gap in Army leadership that needed to be filled, so Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy has been tapped as acting Army secretary, leaving his position open. And so, the Army general counsel will fill in for McCarthy. But, they’re not alone. The Pentagon, and the Trump administration more broadly, is littered with “acting” officials.
Cue the pundits, politicians and prior appointees, who have led the charge condemning President Donald Trump’s preference for “acting” officials. Each justifies their critique by arguing that having permanent presidential appointees in place would automatically lead to better governance, namely politically informed policy implementation and more opportunity for congressional oversight. This would be a logical measure in any typical administration. But in many aspects this administration is not typical, and emphasis on the growth and length of vacancies may detract from an assessment of the real failures of the Trump administration’s policy process and oversight gaps. Whether officials are acting or not is ultimately less important than if governance can proceed seamlessly, transparently and with accountability.
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