Alaska’s Dan Sullivan is one of only two U.S. Senators who are current military reservists. His ongoing military service as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves was one of his strongest selling points as a Senate candidate. But now that he’s a senator, the Marines have removed him from his assignment as a commander, saying it’s incompatible with congressional office.
Sullivan’s dual role, as a senator and a military officer, is frequently seen at hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Other senators and witnesses often commend Sullivan’s military service. It’s an extra credential that fortifies his denouncements of President Obama’s national security posture, which Sullivan says is too mild.
“In his state of the union,(Obama) painted what I would consider a benign, almost delusional view of the world environment,” Sullivan said at a hearing last month, “with quotes like ‘the shadow of crisis has passed …. We’re stopping ISIL’s advance …. We’re opposing Russian aggression …. We’ve halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program.’ These are quotes from the president. To the American people.”
Other Republican senators make similar arguments, but Sullivan can draw on his experience as a reservist for added detail, like when he challenges assertions, by the president and others, that America is a “war-weary” nation. Sullivan tells the Armed Services Committee the troops he knows aren’t weary.
“One of the concerns that they raise, at least with me — and these are just anecdotal but I’m throwing them out there — is they want to deploy,” Sullivan said at another hearing. “They joined the military to serve their country. They don’t want to be sitting around.”
Sullivan intends to remain a military officer and senator. But a clause in the U.S. Constitution has proved problematic. It’s called the Ineligibility Clause (or sometimes the Incompatibility Clause) and it prohibits members of Congress from holding office in the executive branch of government. Whether it applies to Reservists is an old dispute, but in December the Marines cited that bit of the Constitution in a letter telling Sullivan he couldn’t keep the commander job he’d had for 18 months. So in February Sullivan flew to the West Coast for a ceremony to relinquish command, ahead of schedule.
“It was a bittersweet change of command for me,” he says.
Sullivan was commander of 6th ANGLICO, a California-based Reserves unit, and he loved it. ANGLICO Marines deploy in small teams, often attaching to foreign allies on the battlefield to coordinate air strikes.
Professor John Harrison of the University of Virginia School of Law is an expert in the Ineligibility Clause, Article 1 section 6 of the Constitution. The relevant part reads: ” … no person holding any office under the United State shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office.”
It’s a separation of powers thing. Harrison believes the clause bars senators from serving as any kind of officer in the Reserves, in a commander role or not.
“Well, because, as with any military officers, there’s an appointment from the president, giving that person some role in the government of the United States,” Harrison says.
Some argue the infrequency of Reserve duty doesn’t fit the definition of an executive branch office, so it’s OK to be both a Congress member and a Reservist. A report from the Congressional Research Service says the question has never been clearly resolved.
But the Constitution does clearly say Congress is the judge of the qualifications of its members, and Senate Historian Don Ritchie says Congress has been fine with simultaneous service.
“We have had a history of Reservists in the Congress,” Ritchie says. “In fact, there was a Reserve unit on Capitol Hill for many years. Barry Goldwater was the commanding officer for it.”
Lyndon Johnson was a Naval Reservist while in the U.S. House and was the first Congressman to report for active duty in World War II, two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Strom Thurmond was promoted to general in the Army Reserves during his long Senate career. And these days, Thurmond’s successor, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is a JAG in the Air Force Reserves. (When Graham served as a military appeals judge, the Constitutionality of his dual service was challenged in court. A higher court said the Constitution doesn’t allow simultaneous service in Congress and the judicial branch. The opinion didn’t address his military service. Sen. Graham now instructs at the JAG school.)
In Sullivan’s case, a Marine spokeswoman cited several laws and policies along with the Constitution’s ineligibility clause to explain why Sullivan had to give up the position of 6th ANGLICO commander. Among them: rules that say Ready Reserves – those that might be called to mobilize in an emergency – can’t include people who have key federal jobs, or whose communities would endure extreme hardship if they were mobilized.
Sullivan says his understanding was the Ineligibility Clause was the main reason. The senator says he doesn’t have his own take on that part of the Constitution.
“I’ve not looked at it in depth,” he said.
But Sullivan says being a Reservist makes him more effective in the Senate, in part because he can better press to retain Alaska’s military assets.
“Having first-hand experience, being able to talk about just how incredible Alaska is for military training, I think, gives me a lot of credibility as a senator to make the case to not only my fellow senators but to senior administration officials,” he said.
Sullivan says it’s not hard to separate his two roles – one that entails criticizing President Obama, the other requiring that he obey him.
“When I put the uniform on, I’m on Marine and I don’t criticize the president of the United States when I’m a Marine,” he said. “As a U.S. senator, when I think it warrants it, I can be critical of the administration, but I’m doing it in a way that I think advances our national security.”
The senator says he’s in talks with the Marines now about what he’s next assignment will be. He’s not sure they’ll let him be a commander while he’s in the Senate, but he says he intends to carry on the tradition of serving as a senator and an officer.