Austin Hospitalization Drama Sparks House Move to Tighten Notification Requirements for National Security Officials

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III provides testimony
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III provides testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense fiscal 2025 budget request, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., April 30, 2024. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

National security-related executive branch officials would have to notify the president and Congress no more than 24 hours after they are incapacitated by an emergency medical issue under a bill approved by the House on Monday that was inspired by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's secret hospitalization earlier this year.

The bill would also require the president and Congress to be notified at least 24 hours before a planned medical procedure that would prevent the official from doing their job.

"At a time when our nation is facing threats around the world, we cannot afford for those who are critical to America's national security to disappear without explanation and clear delegation of their responsibilities," Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., the bill's sponsor, said on the House floor.

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The bill, which was easily approved in a voice vote, comes after Austin and his staff failed to notify the White House for days when he was hospitalized in January for complications from prostate cancer surgery, itself something Austin kept hidden until after the secrecy surrounding the emergency hospitalization created a political firestorm.

Austin was rushed to the hospital Jan. 1 and transferred his authorities as defense secretary to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Jan. 2, but neither she nor the White House knew he was hospitalized until Jan. 4. Congress and the public weren't informed until Jan. 5.

And it wasn't until Jan. 9 that Austin told the White House, Congress and the public that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and underwent surgery to treat it Dec. 22.

Austin has said he takes "full responsibility" for the breakdown in communications and has apologized that he "didn't get this right." But during a congressional hearing in February, he also appeared to shift blame to his staff, saying, "I was the patient, and so I expect that my organization would do the right thing."

The Pentagon has also stressed that there were "no gaps" in command and control of the military during Austin's hospitalization. Still, some lawmakers remain furious that they and the president weren't notified immediately.

After the episode, the White House ordered new notification procedures for when Cabinet secretaries delegate their authorities.

But lawmakers in both parties said it was important to also ensure there are no gaps in law, prompting the bill approved Monday.

"This bill aligns with the Biden administration's efforts in the field," Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said on the House floor. "Consistent with the spirit of transparency embodied in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which requires congressional leadership to be notified the president is unable to discharge the duties of his or her office, I agree that Congress should be notified if an agency head who is a member of the [National Security Council] is similarly incapacitated."

The law already requires Congress to be notified in the event of an executive branch vacancy, a law some Republicans have argued Austin violated when he didn't inform them immediately of his hospitalization.

The House bill would update the vacancies law to specify the 24-hour notification requirements for medical incapacitation.

The new notification requirements in the bill would apply to members of the National Security Council, which by statute includes the president, vice president and secretaries of Defense, State, Energy and Treasury. The council can also include other members as chosen by the president, such as the president's chief of staff or the national security adviser.

If any National Security Council members are medically incapacitated, notifications would have to go to the Executive Office of the President, the comptroller general of the United States, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the minority leader of the House, according to the bill.

If, for some reason, the 24-hour notification requirement isn't followed, the legislation would require the White House and Congress be given a report within 72 hours that explains why the 24-hour notification didn't happen, why the official was medically incapacitated, and who the acting official was while they were incapacitated.

The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate before becoming law.

Related: Internal Pentagon Review Finds No 'Ill Intent' Behind Austin Hospitalization Secrecy

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