Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies March 23, 2023, before the House Appropriations Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies March 23, 2023, before the House Appropriations Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. (Alexander Kubitza/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in the House are seeking to amend federal law to prevent the delays and lack of transparency that left top U.S. officials unaware of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent hospitalization for days.

A bill introduced this week by Reps. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., and Don Davis, D-N.C., both members of the House Armed Services Committee, would require all members of the National Security Council to provide notification within 24 hours of any planned or emergency medical incapacitation.

The council assists the president with national security and foreign policy decisions and includes the defense secretary as a member.

“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 a clear delegation of their consequential responsibilities,” said Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot.

Agencies that fail to notify the president’s office, the nation’s comptroller general and both chambers of Congress would be required to submit a comprehensive report explaining the notification failure within 30 days, according to the bill.

The proposed bill would serve as an amendment to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which establishes requirements for temporarily filling vacant positions in top government posts.

The newly introduced legislation is the latest congressional response to the Pentagon’s mishandling of Austin’s ongoing hospitalization at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for complications from prostate cancer surgery.

The White House was not told of Austin’s early December diagnosis or his late December surgery, which required him to go under general anesthesia, until this week. Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 1 was not disclosed to top Pentagon officials, the White House, lawmakers or the public for several days.

“Congress must require National Security Council agencies to provide a notice of the incapacitation of its agency head within 24 hours,” said Davis, an Air Force veteran. “We owe this to the American people.”

Seven other lawmakers, all of them Republicans, are also cosponsoring the bill.

The legislation follows other efforts by Republicans and Democrats to hold the Pentagon accountable for communication lapses. The House Armed Services Committee has launched an official inquiry into what went wrong in Austin’s case while its Senate counterpart delivered a letter on Thursday urging the Pentagon to review its notification procedures.

Austin continues to retain the support of President Joe Biden despite calls from about a dozen lawmakers, including one Democrat, for him to resign over the incident.

Twitter: @svetashko

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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