Senate Armed Services puts ‘paper hearings’ on hold

Defense Department too busy with pandemic response to answer questions

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the panel's top Democrat, talk before a 2018 hearing.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the panel's top Democrat, talk before a 2018 hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 9, 2020 at 2:10pm

The Senate Armed Services Committee is postponing its so-called “paper hearings,” its attempt to continue oversight of the Defense Department as COVID-19 makes in-person hearings impossible.

The panel held its first and only paper hearing, focused on the Army's budget request, on March 26. That day, Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., released opening statements, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville submitted written testimony.

Under the paper hearing plan, committee members could submit written questions, and the Defense Department would have a week to provide written answers. Even at the outset, lawmakers recognized that the Pentagon would be largely focused on its COVID-19 response, and promised to be flexible if defense officials needed more time.

But the system proved untenable, and the committee announced Thursday it was putting such hearings on hold for now.

“DOD has rightfully focused on COVID-19 response, which means the Department has struggled to respond in a timely manner to the paper hearing questions for the Department of the Army posture hearing,” said Marta Hernandez, the committee’s communications director, in an email.

“Recognizing the additional burden on the Department of Defense at this critical time, Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed have agreed to postpone future paper hearings until the Committee has more clarity on the COVID-19 situation.”

The committee was supposed to hold a paper hearing on the Department of Energy’s budget related to nuclear weapons on Thursday.

Nonetheless, the committee intends to draft a version of the annual defense policy bill by the end of May, but Inhofe will remain flexible as needed, Hernandez said.

“At this point, no decisions have been made, but as this crisis evolves, the committee will announce changes to the anticipated markup schedule,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is facing numerous vacancies in top civilian roles. Those include the Navy secretary, a post that has been in the spotlight after Tom Modly, the acting secretary, resigned this week over remarks he gave on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt, calling its ousted captain “stupid.”

President Donald Trump has nominated Kenneth Braithwaite, ambassador to Norway, for the top Navy job, but it is unclear when the Armed Services Committee would consider the nomination.

Modly fired the Roosevelt’s captain after a letter he wrote, begging for more resources to address the coronavirus outbreak on the aircraft carrier, became public. The Roosevelt, based in the Pacific, is in port in Guam as officials try to deal with the outbreak, which has infected more than 400 of the carrier’s 4,865 sailors.