U.S. Navy Secretary Sounds Off on Hold on Officer Promotions

Del Toro
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, August 2023 (USN)

Published Sep 6, 2023 8:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

Navy secretaries have every reason to cultivate positive relations with members of Congress. Members of the committees that handle appropriations and defense policy have particular sway, as they decide the details of the Navy's budget. But Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro appears to have run out of patience with one elected official: Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who has put a hold on the confirmation process for all senior military promotions and nominations since March

Promotions and appointments for uniformed officers are usually uncontroversial and passed en masse, by voice vote. Sen. Tuberville has insisted that he will maintain a blanket hold on this process unless the Pentagon stops reimbursing servicemembers for travel expenses they incur in obtaining an abortion.

The Senate has the option of passing hundreds of these promotions individually, one at a time, but political analysts say that this would consume most of the body's time for legislative work. So far, the Senate's Democratic leadership has refused to pursue this option. 

The hold affects the top officers of the Navy, Army and the Marine Corps; the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command; and about 300 other generals and admirals across the armed forces. It is the first time in history that three branches of the armed forces are operating without confirmed leadership. 

Recent polling in Tuberville's home state has found that about half of his constituents support the hold, but his approach is unpopular with the Pentagon's top civilian ranks, where leaders say that it is damaging readiness. The secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force published an unusually pointed critique on Monday, then followed it up with a joint interview on CNN.

In the interview, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro - who was born in Cuba and fled to the U.S. with his family - accused Sen. Tuberville of aiding America's adversaries abroad. 

“For someone who was born in a communist country, I would have never imagined that one of our own senators would actually be aiding and abetting communists and other autocratic regimes around the world,” said Secretary Del Toro, a former Navy officer and a Biden administration appointee, in a blistering critique. “This is having a real negative impact and will continue to have an impact on our combat readiness."

“I’m disappointed that a secretary would say that about a senator. Makes you feel bad that we got leaders in the country like that,” Sen. Tuberville responded in a follow-up interview on CNN. “If I thought it was hurting readiness, I wouldn’t be doing this. But it’s not.”

According to the Pentagon, the hold means that many senior officers have to perform two roles at the same time while awaiting confirmation. The wait also interferes with their moves to new duty locations, and it holds up promotion for less-senior officers who are in line to step up. In addition, senior officers who are awaiting confirmation must serve in an acting capacity, with fewer legal authorities than a confirmed leader would have, according to the Pentagon.