The Senate has rightly been criticized for failing to confirm President Obama’s appointees for important positions throughout the government. Most of those nominees are uncontroversial, and leaving those positions unfilled makes federal agencies less effective. But the case of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms highlights the Senate’s important oversight role through the confirmation process.
Lt. Gen. Helms was the first military woman to travel into space, so it makes sense that President Obama nominated her to take over as Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command. However, the Washington Post reports that in February 2012, Helms granted clemency to an Air Force officer under her command who was convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow officer. Sexual assault is a major problem in the military, and one that many feel that the Defense Department is not doing enough to address.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is holding up Helms’s confirmation, stating that she wants more information on Helms’s justification for granting clemency in the sexual assault case. What does it mean for McCaskill to “hold” the confirmation? The Senate usually confirms appointments by unanimous consent. Senator McCaskill is withholding her consent, meaning the Senate would have to take a vote to confirm Helms. The Senate rarely takes votes on appointments at this level – Vice Commanders are not the Secretary of Defense – so a hold can effectively block the appointment indefinitely.
Regardless of how this particular case plays out, the hold will have a powerful effect on every senior officer in the military — appear soft on sexual assault and the Senate will end your career. This is a case where the military leadership may not be responding to a problem with the determination that the American people would expect they should. Military leaders have opposed calls to restrict the authority of commanders to set aside convictions, though that may change after Secretary Hagel endorsed changing those laws. By holding the nomination of Lt. Gen. Helms, Senator McCaskill is using the Senate’s confirmation power to pressure the military to take sexual assault more seriously than it has been in the past.