WASHINGTON ― The White House and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are at odds over a bid to revive the Pentagon’s short-lived chief management officer, or CMO, a position that ranked No. 3 in the Defense Department until Congress abolished it three years ago.
A July White House statement on the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill said the Biden administration “strongly opposes” Manchin’s provision in the legislation to resurrect the office, arguing that it would “structurally result in the same outcomes” as before.
Manchin argues his effort to revive the office is key to reforming Defense Department business practices needed to save taxpayers money, while acknowledging that some tweaks may be needed for CMO 2.0.
“It is imperative that Congress and the administration work together to better manage the [Defense Department’s] business processes so they can successfully negotiate and work with private industry,” he told Defense News in a statement on Friday. “While it may not be beneficial to reinstate the CMO in its most recent form, there must be a senior position with the necessary authority and autonomy that can push the department to increase accountability and meet necessary business transformation goals.”
At a July Senate hearing, Manchin pointed to the Pentagon’s failure to pass five consecutive audits as justification for reviving the position.
Manchin’s provision would require Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “to clearly delineate the authorities and responsibilities” of the revived position. It would also require Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks to submit a congressional report on how abolishing the office “and the failure to reassign” its responsibilities has affected defense business systems.
The Senate passed Manchin’s CMO provision in July as part of the FY24 National Defense Authorization Act by an 86-11 vote. The House version of the bill, which passed 219-210 in July, does not revive the position, meaning the CMO debate will be on the agenda when both chambers convene a conference committee for a final bill later this year.
After Congress established the position, it only lasted for three years between 2018 and 2021. Congress abolished it after commissioning a 2020 report that found the position was “mostly ineffective.” Among other issues, that report pointed to unclear goals, incentives and success metrics for the CMO. The White House pointed to that report as part of its opposition to reviving the office.
More recently, the Pentagon in January launched the Defense Management Institute, an independent research entity tasked with improving its management, organizational performance and business operations. The Defense Management Institute in June issued a report on the former CMO position.
That Defense Management Institute report found the office was “imposed by Congress on an unconvinced [Defense Department] leadership community” and that lawmakers and rapid turnover in senior Pentagon leadership repeatedly changed its “mission, tasking, priorities and resources.” It also pointed to “frequent disruptions in priorities, resources and leadership.”
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis removed the first CMO, Jay Gibson, over “a lack of performance” after just nine months. The Senate subsequently confirmed Acting CMO Lisa Hershman to the position in 2019, just one year before abolishing the office.
Hershman argued that the office freed up “$37 billion of budgeted funds through reform and increased efficiency.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.