Senate confirms Pentagon watchdog after seven-year vacancy

Chip Somodevilla

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Robert Storch to serve as the Defense Department inspector general in a 92-3 vote, making him the first Senate-confirmed official to assume the role since Jon Rymer left the post in January 2016.

The vote comes one day after the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urging the Senate to confirm Storch‘s nomination.

“We are deeply troubled by the fact that the Department of Defense has operated without a permanent inspector general for almost seven years — the longest gap in Pentagon history,” Geoff Wilson, the director of the Project on Government Oversight’s center for defense information, wrote in the letter.

“During that time, Pentagon spending has increased by more than $200 billion,” he added. “In the past nine months alone, the United States has committed over $65 billion to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia, much of which flows through the Pentagon.”

The White House recently submitted an additional $38 billion Ukraine aid request to Congress, but a growing chorus of Republicans have criticized the assistance for Kyiv and many are calling for more oversight.

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, Storch had served as inspector general for the National Security Agency under former President Donald Trump.

Sean O’Donnell, the inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency, has served in a dual role as acting inspector general for the Pentagon under both Trump and President Joe Biden.

A June legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office found O’Donnell has been serving as acting Pentagon inspector general unlawfully per the Vacancies Act, which “limits the service of an acting official to 210 days beginning on the date the vacancy occurs.”

Wilson argued in his letter to Schumer that “[a]cting inspectors general aren’t properly incentivized to engage in the long-term strategic planning needed to tackle grave oversight issues associated with repeated audit failures, corporate price gouging, and billions of dollars in overseas military assistance.”

“Additionally, acting inspectors general may not receive the level of respect necessary do their jobs effectively,” he wrote. “Since they are temporary, agency officials can choose to wait them out and stall ongoing investigations into the waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars.

The Senate has made some progress chipping away at a backlog of Defense Department nominees that have been held up on the floor by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., amid increasing frustration from the Pentagon.

Hawley last year began a blanket hold on all Defense Department nominees, threatening to keep it in place until Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken resign over the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.

He has since scaled back his demands and now says he will lift the hold in exchange for a public hearing on last year’s Abbey Gate attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which killed 13 American service members and more than 160 Afghan civilians.

On Wednesday, Hawley joined Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Mike Braun, R-Ind., in voting against Storch’s nomination. His hold has prevented the Senate from confirming noncontroversial Pentagon nominees under expedited unanimous consent procedures.

Still, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., earlier this month managed to push through the nominee of Rheanne Wirkkala as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs via unanimous consent because Hawley was not present to block his motion on the floor.

But Hawley’s hold generally means Democrats will need to spend valuable floor time confirming Pentagon nominees with nearly unanimous Senate support. For instance, Hawley was the lone senator to vote against Christopher Lowman as assistant secretary of defense for sustainment in May – a post tasked with overseeing Ukraine aid logistics.

With Storch’s confirmation, nine more Pentagon nominees remain held up on the Senate floor. If the Senate does not act on them before the end of the year, their nominations will return to the Armed Services Committee in January, further slowing the confirmation process.