Jul 17, 2023

Today's debate: Tommy Tuberville's abortion protest.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (left) greeting Sen. Tommy Tuberville (right) in 2022. Image U.S. Secretary of Defense
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (left) greeting Sen. Tommy Tuberville (right) in 2022. Image U.S. Secretary of Defense

Plus, a question about why so many flights are being canceled.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.


We're covering Sen. Tuberville's decision to stall nominations for senior roles in the military. Plus, a question about airline delays and some reader responses to our Friday edition.


As expected, the reactions to Friday's interview with Dr. Joseph Fraiman about Covid-19 vaccines were very mixed. Here are a few bits of reader feedback that are representative of the larger sample I read through:

  • "I have to say that I am very disappointed in your choice to air this information. Your efforts to be fair should not include the error of false equivalence... I am truly angered that you are adding to this type of misinformation."
  • "Great newsletter today. Really great. I felt not like I was getting another 'study' (for or against something) jammed down my throat, but more of an impassioned plea for a return to legit science, scientific skepticism, and scientific discourse.”
  • "I appreciate that Tangle is dedicated to making space for complexity, and trying to reach past the polarized scream of social media to bring us as balanced and nuanced discussion as possible, especially on topics that tend to trigger a polarized shutdown of conversation in everyday life."

As always, I'll try to reply to feedback via email, and we may also run a follow-up piece to the interview. For now, you can read it here

Quick hits.

  1. Russia announced on Monday that it would suspend its agreement with Ukraine to allow grain exports. Suspension of the deal could drive up global food prices, as well as costs for other goods like fertilizer. (The deal
  2. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) walked back her comments that Israel is a racist country this week. Israeli President Isaac Herzog is scheduled to address Congress on Wednesday. (The comments
  3. Four people were killed in a mass shooting in Atlanta over the weekend. The shooter was killed by police. (The deaths) Separately, at least five people died in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, after an estimated 6-7 inches of rain fell in less than 45 minutes. (The flooding
  4. A bipartisan measure being pushed by Sen. Chuck Schumer would create a commission with broad authority to declassify more government documents about UFOs and extraterrestrials. (The measure
  5. Roughly 100 million Americans are under heat alerts this morning, stretching from Florida to California. (The heat)

Today's topic.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). Tuberville has been blocking all nominations for senior military positions over his disagreement with a Defense Department policy to pay for service members’ out-of-state travel for abortions or other reproductive care. As part of a protest against the policy, Tuberville has used the unique power held by individual senators known as "unanimous consent" to stall all nominations for senior military personnel, and has refused to budge from his position despite attacks from President Joe Biden, some of his Republican colleagues, and an open letter from seven previous secretaries of defense.

In the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released an official memorandum in October of last year that set aside funding for abortion and reproductive healthcare providers to get licensed to treat service members from different states in the event of abortion becoming illegal in their states of residence. It also allowed service members to use official travel reimbursements and time off to seek abortions in other locations.

In February, Tuberville began protesting this policy by refusing to allow progress on 150 personnel reviews that were waiting in batches to move through the upper chamber of Congress. There are now at least 270 nominations being delayed.

Tuberville argues that taxpayers should not have to pay for anyone who wants to leave the state for an abortion, and further contends that the policy violates the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion. Because the Senate requires unanimous consent for much of its business, Tuberville is capable of stalling or altogether preventing military vacancies from being filled.

Now, the military is starting to feel the impact of his protest. Last week, for the first time in a century, the U.S. Marine Corps began operating without a commandant after Gen. David Berger stepped down from his term-limited position, which began in July of 2019. Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith, who was nominated to take over, can only serve in an acting capacity until Tuberville lifts his blockade.

Smith can still implement new budgetary and training policies, and perform other personnel decisions, but cannot occupy the main residence or commandant's office or issue any formal planning guidance.

“We need the Senate to do their job so that we can have a sitting commandant that’s appointed and confirmed. We need that house to be occupied,” Gen. Berger said upon leaving the position.

The Marine Corps is just the first of several military bodies expected to face a leadership predicament resulting from Tuberville’s actions, as the Army, Navy, and Air Force all have senior leaders departing in the coming months. In the meantime, the hold is impacting one-, two- and three-star officers who can't move into newly assigned roles or relocate to new military posts commensurate with their positions.

Senate leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have both expressed disapproval for his tactics. However, because of the way Senate rules work, Tuberville can stand in the way of large batches of confirmations, leaving little recourse for Senate leadership outside of upending established rules and traditions that have guided the chamber for years. Alternatively, the Senate could confirm each nomination individually, though such a move would take up much of the Senate's resources and legislative calendar.

Tuberville, meanwhile, has downplayed the impact of the holds, especially as it relates to Smith's leadership of the Marine Corps.

“There may be a delay in his planning guidance, and yet he cannot move into the commandant’s residence, but there is little doubt about General Smith’s ability to lead effectively,” Tuberville said.

Initially, Tuberville said he would release his hold on the nominations if the Senate voted on the issue. Now, though, he says he will only back down if the Pentagon rescinds their abortion access policy altogether.

Tuberville, perhaps best known as the former head football coach at Auburn University, became the subject of more controversy last week after he responded to a question about whether white nationalists should be able to serve in the military by saying, "I call them Americans." Tuberville then doubled down, saying it was merely an "opinion" that white nationalists were racist, a comment that drew condemnation from his Republican colleagues. Later, he would walk the remarks back, saying he believed white nationalists were racist.

In related news, the House recently passed a heavily amended National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bill that limits reimbursements for travel for abortion; cuts funding for diversity, equality and inclusion programs in the military; and restricts access to funding for hormone therapy and gender-transition surgeries for troops. Those amendments are expected to be stripped by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Today, we're going to explore some reactions to Tuberville's strategy from the left and right, then my take. 

What the left is saying.

  • The left is unanimously opposed to Tuberville's position, arguing that he's harming military families and is on an extremist anti-abortion crusade.
  • Many suggest that Tuberville is putting military readiness in danger while also misunderstanding the very rule he’s protesting.
  • Some say this is simply Tuberville showing the "real" Republican position on abortion.

In Bloomberg, the editorial board said blocking promotions is "unpatriotic."

"Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville misses few chances to tout both his career as a college football coach and his love for the military. It’s all the more reprehensible, then, that Tuberville is single-handedly blocking the Pentagon from putting its best team on the field — and harming the country’s security in the process," the editors said. "Due to Tuberville’s intransigence, the Marine Corps lacks a Senate-confirmed commandant for the first time in 164 years," and "more than 600 senior officers may be affected by the end of the year."

This is "already damaging military readiness," as officers in acting capacity "don't have the same authority they would if Senate-confirmed," they said. "Incoming Marine commandant General Eric Smith, for instance, can’t issue crucial planning guidance for the service. Uncertainty takes a toll on military families, who can’t relocate or receive new salaries until appointments are official." By "targeting" uniformed officers instead of political appointees, Tuberville "risks dragging the US military into the country’s partisan muck."

In Vox, Ellen Ioanes said the hold "is based on a misrepresentation of how the Pentagon’s abortion policy works."

"Tuberville’s claims don’t actually comport with Pentagon policy, which allows service members or their families to take time off and use official travel mechanisms and funding, as they would for any other type of travel, to seek abortion care in another location," she wrote. "However, the Pentagon doesn’t pay for service members to get abortions, nor do the new policies provide for government health insurance to cover abortions — both of which the Hyde Amendment actually prohibits. Since 1993, the Hyde Amendment has made exceptions to allow federal funds to pay for abortion care in the case of rape or incest, or risk to the health or life of a pregnant person. That also holds true in the military, though available data indicates these cases are quite rare."

"Tuberville’s complaint that the new policy goes beyond what’s allowed via federal statute isn’t accurate because there’s currently no statute preventing the expenditure of federal funds to travel for abortion care," she added. "Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) has introduced legislation to prohibit the use of federal funds to travel to obtain an abortion, but it has not passed the House, and Justice Department guidance to the Department of Health and Human Services explicitly states that Hyde should be interpreted to 'prohibit only direct expenses for the procedure itself and not indirect expenses, such as those for transportation to and from the medical facility where the procedure is performed.'"

In The American Prospect, Ryan Cooper wrote about the GOP's "Tommy Tuberville problem," which shows their "real" position on abortion.

"His antics are making it all too easy to point out what the GOP will do if they get the chance: ban all abortion across the country," Cooper said. "Since Dobbs, many national-level Republicans have attempted to sidestep the abortion question. Donald Trump and Chris Christie have said that the issue should be left up to the states. Nikki Haley said in a speech that she would seek some ‘national consensus’ without saying what that means. House Republicans have struggled to get a national ban after 15 weeks to the floor (though they have passed other more modest restrictions)."

But the real "preference here is obvious: Abortion should be banned across the country, with as few exceptions as they think they can get away with. That’s what they’re doing at the state level, where the GOP is enacting ever-stricter bans wherever they can," Cooper said. "Savvier Republicans are starting to grasp that abortion is a massive political liability" and will "try to 'force it through under cover of darkness,' to quote Alex Pareene." But "Tuberville's stunt plays havoc with that strategy."

What the right is saying.

* Most Republicans support Tuberville in his opposition to this policy, though some still want him to lift the hold.

  • Many conservatives praise him for his bravery in holding the line against abortion access, arguing he has military regulation on his side.
  • Others suggest that this tactic is a political loser, and Tuberville is creating an unnecessary headache for the military.

In National Review, Rich Lowry said Tuberville "is right about the military."

"No one noticed over the years that, on top of its other supposed benefits, Roe v. Wade was protecting the readiness of the U.S. military," Lowry said. "Yes, in a major war we’d want to make sure we have secure supply lines, overwhelming force — and free and easy access to abortion." Yet the Pentagon is "funding abortion tourism for troops" behind enemy lines — that is, "in a state that has significant post-Dobbs restrictions on abortion." The Department of Defense is "following a political script — the administration wants to paint Dobbs in the most dire terms possible, and show its base that it is doing its utmost to work around its consequences."

Lowry also quoted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who "said on Fox News Sunday of women who want to get an abortion prohibited where they are stationed, 'If they want to take that step, they have 30 days of annual leave. It shouldn’t be taxpayer funds giving them three weeks of paid, uncharged leave and then also paying for travel and lodging and meals — something that we don’t even give our troops when they have a parent die.' ... There are many things that are necessary to deal with the rising military threat from China, from new-generation weapons to an updated nuclear triad. Needless to say, abortion on demand is not one of them."

In Townhall, Rebecca Downs said Tuberville is "not only standing up for life, but the rule of law."

"The policy is in violation of 10 U.S.C. 1093, which dictates that abortion can only be funded in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother," she wrote. "Tuberville, unlike Biden, has indicated his willingness to talk about the issue... Some progress may be in the works. On Thursday, the senator spoke with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. This comes after the DoD failed to respond to letters from Republicans about the policy." Tuberville's office has reminded the public that existing officers are "kept in place" until their replacement is confirmed.

Admiral John C. Aquilino testified before the [Senate Armed Services Committee] that operationally, the hold is ‘going to have no impact,’ “since officers remain 'until the proper replacement is in place.' Even [Democratic] Chairman Reed acknowledged, 'It seems that for the next several months you could get by,'" Downs wrote. "There are those who would seek to portray Republicans as being in disarray over Tuberville's holds. But, support is there, with members and senior staffers communicating such support to Townhall."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Tuberville should "lift his hold on promotions" despite the Pentagon being in the wrong on policy.

"Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s Pentagon blockade is a kamikaze run, but the Defense Department is the aggressor on both the law and politics of abortion," the board said. "Utterly predictable is that Democrats would exploit the Senator’s blockade to paint Republicans as obstructionists who are compromising military readiness. The military hasn’t ceased to function, though the effects ripple as officers wait to relocate families or start a new post."

While "this is not a political winner for Republicans," the "Biden Administration is also holding these officers hostage to compel taxpayers to pay for abortions. The Defense Department reinvented its travel policy to cover abortion after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision." The Pentagon wasn't "responding to a crisis in the force," as women "have long served abroad in countries that restrict abortion." Not only that, but the Pentagon is "outside" what little national consensus exists on abortion. "Some 60% of Americans oppose using tax dollars to pay for abortions, according to one survey this year. Mr. Biden opposed taxpayer payments for abortion until he ran for President in 2019."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I think the tactics Tuberville is using are fine, and if it was for a cause I supported I'm sure I would back him.
  • It's not at all clear to me that military readiness is being impacted in a meaningful way, if at all.
  • Ultimately, I don't support him because I think he is wrong about the policy in question.

I'll be honest: I think support or opposition to Tuberville's actions depends entirely on how you feel about his position.

If, for instance, Tuberville were holding up these nominations because the military had instituted a ban on allowing immigrants to serve, I'm sure most of the people criticizing him right now would gladly support his protest. That may seem like an obvious point to make, but I think it's important to note that his tactics — while a big focus of this story — are not really the root of the opposition to Tuberville. For anyone who supports his position, those tactics are exactly what makes his crusade so clever, brave, and powerful.

So, I'll show my cards and say that I am opposed to what Tuberville is doing, but I think I'm self-aware enough to know it's not because of how he is doing it but because of what his end goal is. Regarding the tactics, it seems apparent (based on the testimony of military officials and the practical implications of his protest) that blocking leadership confirmations is not impacting military readiness so much as creating huge inconveniences for military families, and disrupting the well earned promotions of new leaders. That isn't great, and I certainly feel for those families, but the net effect is not the giant threat to American safety that Biden and some Democrats are portraying it to be.

On the actual policy dispute here, I just think Tuberville is wrong about the law. The main argument he's making is that the military’s policy is a violation of the Hyde Amendment. That amendment itself has a long history of legal disputes, so the gray area here is significant, but the Pentagon's policy simply folds abortion and reproductive care into other travel, leave, or health care needs for members of the military.

The Hyde Amendment prohibits spending for the actual procedure of abortion, and it prohibits government health insurance from covering abortions (with exceptions for rape, incest, and when the mother's life is threatened). But this policy does not appear to violate either of those things. As far as I can tell, the closest the policy comes to violating the Hyde Amendment is allocating funding for military healthcare providers who may get fined or targeted for providing abortions in states where it is illegal.

For some, that may cross the line. But I think if there were a winning legal challenge there, Republicans would be waging this battle in court, not with a protest like this. Of course, the fact that Republicans are currently trying to pass legislation that prohibits the use of federal funds for travel to obtain an abortion makes it obvious that the rules Tuberville claims are being broken don't actually exist yet. The reality is that rules on the margins for entities like the military are under the purview of the executive branch. Democrats won the White House, so they now get to define the margins. That’s politics. 

Frankly, it's not even clear to me how helpful the new policy allowing travel and leave for abortions will be for women who are in the military. When implementing this new policy, Pentagon officials said there was not much they could do for military members in states where abortion was prohibited. And if you're a woman serving in the military, based in a state where abortion is illegal or seriously restricted, it's probably going to be very hard to jump through the necessary hoops to get an abortion.

So, do I think Tuberville is threatening U.S. military readiness? No. I think he is leveraging his significant power as an individual senator to take a moral stand he believes in, and I presume he is delighted by all the national attention and notice this protest is getting. I do think he is wrong about the actual policy, though, and I think the longer this goes on the more likely it will actually impact our troops at large.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Having been to a wedding to which our families flew a lot (for us, at least), we experienced what seems like a lot of cancellations, delays, and changes to our flights; and heard/read about many more. How do the airlines justify this level of service considering the amount of federal dollars they received during Covid?

- Anonymous, from Dublin, California

Tangle: It's frustrating that flights have gotten delayed more frequently or canceled more often after all the relief funds that the industry received during Covid. I think the best justification is that they used those funds to pay their employees while receiving little to no revenue, and were still cutting costs to stay afloat. Airlines grounded older planes and canceled less popular flight routes to stay afloat, while many older pilots took the opportunity to retire early. As with most things, the cause is a combination of factors. 1) It's not as big of an increase as it seems 2) Weather 3) Supply and Demand 4) Staffing.

1) Not that bad. If I asked you, "How many more flights were delayed or canceled in the first quarter of 2023 compared to 2022, or the past ten-year average," what would you say? Twice as many? 50% more? 25%? Well, it turns out 2% fewer flights were canceled in the first part of 2023 compared to 2022, while about 2% more were delayed. Compared to the past ten years, the on-time percentage for flights is only a few percentage points off the average. So, it's still a problem, but one not as widespread as we might think.

2) Weather. A good response to the above would be, "Well, that's just the first quarter — July 4th weekend was a disaster." And that's true. Wildfire smoke and storms in the northeast caused sweeping delays and cancellations, which had a ripple effect throughout the whole system, which produced more than 3,000 disruptions for flights in or into the U.S. In general, due to a higher likelihood of storms, there tend to be more cancellations in summer, not fewer. That gap between expectation and reality probably creates the illusion of a larger problem than what actually exists.

3) Supply and Demand. Again, the above is ripe for rebuttal: "Well, if the airline system were more durable, then it would be able to handle disruptions better." Also true! But since airlines downsized following the pandemic, there were just fewer flights and fewer airline employees available to deal with the spike in demand for travel that followed the end of the Covid emergency. You can see this for yourself in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics data linked above: There are just fewer flights now than there were in 2019.

4) Staffing. Yes, for airlines, as mentioned above — but not just airlines. United CEO Scott Kirby blamed FAA short-staffing and constrictions in a memo, as CNN reported: “Kirby said in the memo that, on Saturday, the FAA reduced arrival rates at its major hub at Newark Liberty International Airport by 40% and departure rates by 75%, which was 'almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA.'”

Anecdotally, our managing editor Ari Weitzman had a flight delayed this weekend, and took the opportunity to ask a pilot for his observations. He was told the FAA's air traffic controllers are under-staffed, overwhelmed, and less able to cope with disruptive situations — specifically saying that a major hub in Denver is struggling right now. 

Of course, if you're a reader in the aviation industry, please write in and let me know what you're experiencing!

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The 2024 House majority could be decided by a series of court rulings before elections even get underway. In an unusual scenario, the outcome of several challenges to district maps in Alabama, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio could tip the scales in favor of Democrats. Congressional maps are drawn every 10 years, right after the U.S. census, but a flurry of gerrymandering and challenges to gerrymandering have set up a remarkable year heading into an election where court decisions will help dictate which party has an advantage. Axios has the story.  


  • 91. The number of abortions performed at military medical facilities between 2016 and 2021.
  • 60%. The percentage of Americans who are opposed or strongly opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion, according to a 2023 Marist poll.
  • 40%. The percentage of Americans who support or strongly support taxpayer funding of abortion, according to a 2023 Marist poll.
  • 61%. The percentage of Americans in that same poll who described themselves as "pro-choice."
  • 2019. The year Joe Biden reversed his position and denounced his previous support for the Hyde Amendment.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we published a subscribers-only piece on how to combat misinformation.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the story from Ground News about Biden's temper.
  • Door #3: 67% of the 979 Tangle readers who responded to our poll said they would support No Labels running a third-party candidate in the 2024 presidential election, with 31% saying they would 'support' it and 26% saying they would 'strongly support.' 35% are opposed, with 15% saying they are 'opposed' and 20% 'strongly opposed.' 8% were unsure, or had no opinion.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The meteorology report of a tornado forming over O'Hare Airport.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of Sen. Tuberville's protest? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

In a story straight out of a science fiction book, Israeli scientists say they have reattached a 12-year-old boy's head to his neck after a serious accident in which he suffered an "internal decapitation." The boy was hit by a car while riding his bicycle and was airlifted to the Hadassah hospital, where doctors discovered severe damage to ligaments supporting the base of his skull, detaching it from his spine. "We fought for the boy's life," Dr. Ohad Einav, an orthopedic surgeon who operated on him, said. "The fact that such a child has no neurological deficits or sensory or motor dysfunction, and that he is functioning normally and walking without an aid after such a long process, is no small thing,” Einav added. Times of Israel has the story

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.