CAPITOL HILL: President Obama’s nominee to be Navy Undersecretary, Jo Ann Rooney, faced a stormy reception this morning, getting a bipartisan hammering by Senators John McCain and Kirsten Gillibrand.
In her formal written responses to SASC’s pre-hearing questions, Rooney had demurred on whether the Navy Department could meet the statutory deadline of September 2014 to get key budget documents in shape to pass an audit. When Sen. McCain pressed for an answer again this morning, she demurred again, saying she still lacked enough “detailed information” to address such a complex issue.
(Pro tip: Do not piss off John McCain.)
“Until you find out, I will not be supporting your nomination,” McCain interrupted. “I want an answer whether the Navy can meet its legal obligations. If you don’t know the answer then you’re not qualified for the job yet.”
McCain did not say whether simply meant he would vote “nay” on the nomination or go so far as to place a hold on it until he got a satisfactory answer, and his office declined to clarify the senator’s intention.
After this, McCain rolled on to slam the Navy, his former service, over its inability to keep track of its civilian employees: “We don’t even know how many civilian employees we have!” Then he opened fire on the “over budget, behind schedule, deficient” Littoral Combat Ship, quoting the Government Accountability Office’s recent report calling for a “pause” in the program. (Interestingly, GAO largely backed off that recommendation in a subsequent hearing). Did she favor such a pause?
When Rooney tried a diplomatic answer, McCain stomped again: “I hope you will answer the question, and that is, do you believe a pause is needed as recommended by the GAO?”
Rooney’s polite reply boiled down to “No”: Slowing down production at this point, she said, when the price per ship has come down dramatically, will just send costs spiking upwards again.
On his way out of the hearing, however, McCain told our Bloomberg colleague Tony Capaccio that he planned to push for a pause on LCS as part of the pending defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2014. (FY ’14 began October 1.) “We’ll be looking at ways of getting better accountability,” the senator told Capaccio.
McCain did agree with Rooney and the Navy on the bitterly contested legal process for prosecuting sexual assaults. The Pentagon has stood by military law that it is the commander of the alleged victim and perpetrator who must decide whether to prosecute. Critics want the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) changed to give that authority to an independent legal expert from the Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps. In her written answers, Rooney — or more likely Pentagon staff — had infelicitously argued that a JAG would make “decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline,” paradoxically “result[ing] in fewer prosecutions.”
Sen. Gillibrand was outraged. “Members of the military still have civil rights,” she fumed. (They waive many but hardly all of them on signing up). “You should have an objective review based only on the evidence.”
Gillibrand hammered Rooney repeatedly on the issue, but the nominee stood firm in defense of the Pentagon’s position: No aspect of “good order and discipline,” including but hardly limited to justice for crimes, cannot be taken out of the hands of the chain of command.
It was the audit question, however, that clearly posed the biggest threat to Rooney’s nomination. Before he adjourned the hearing, Sen. Levin reminded Rooney of her obligation to get McCain an answer, soon. “Find out as much as you can and then give us your opinion,” Levin said.
“He’s entitled to a response,” Levin told me after the hearing when I asked about McCain. “It was an appropriate question. She didn’t have [the answer] at the time, but she indicated that she’ll promptly get as much information as she can on it, and she’ll give us her opinion, which is what is needed…. I’m confident she can do that promptly.”
“I hope that would satisfy Sen. McCain,” Levin said, who added he thought her nomination would be approved.
Satisfying — let alone predicting — Sen. McCain’s actions is not an easy task. Rooney and the Navy have better get moving.