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NDAA could address Pentagon’s ‘revolving door’

Measure seeks to tighten restrictions on former DOD officials working for defense contractors and private sector employees joining the Pentagon

Sen. Elizabeth Warren hopes to see her DOD ethics legislation included as part of this year's defense policy bill.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren hopes to see her DOD ethics legislation included as part of this year's defense policy bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers in both chambers are looking to rewrite the ethics and lobbying rules that affect Pentagon officials, retired brass, executives with U.S. defense contractors and even foreign governments.

The issue could be a key part of the developing debate over the fiscal 2024 defense authorization bills, which the Armed Services committees plan to finish writing next week. 

Companion bills on Defense Department ethics are being drafted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, and Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., the ranking member of the comparable panel on the House Armed Services Committee. Warren plans to file her measure on Friday and Kim hopes to do the same soon in the House.

The legislation would extend the cooling off period for former Defense Department officials to work for military contractors and vice versa. And it would strictly limit those officials’ ability to own stock in the defense industry. It would restrict lobbying by former brass for foreign governments. And it would tighten stock ownership rules.

Hundreds of former federal officials now work as lobbyists for major Pentagon contractors.

The measures seek to prevent conflicts of interest that critics say could corrupt decisions made by public officials, undermine U.S. foreign policy priorities or give retired brass unwarranted influence on Pentagon contracting decisions. 

NDAA debate

A Warren spokeswoman said the senator has prioritized trying to include the measure as part of the NDAA. 

In the House, it is not clear whether or when Kim’s measure might be incorporated in that chamber’s version of the NDAA or be considered as a standalone or part of another bill entirely. 

The House Armed Services Committee holds its marathon NDAA markup on June 21. The Senate Armed Services subcommittees and the full committee also plan to approve their measure by June 23.  

Warren told CQ Roll Call in a statement that the bill will help root out corruption, rein in foreign influence and ensure greater transparency over defense contractors’ interactions with the government. 

“When former senior military officials are willing to sell their credentials to the highest bidder, our national security is put at risk,” Warren said.

Kim told CQ Roll Call in a statement that he backs the bill for similar reasons. 

“Too many Americans have lost faith in their government because they feel it isn’t working for them,” Kim said. “Instead, people feel like there’s too much outside influence. With this bill, we can help change that.”

Tightening rules

Current law sets certain conditions on former Defense Department officials who work for defense contractors. The restrictions vary depending on the rank of the individual, the kind of government work the person performed in the public sector, and the sort of contractor work or advocacy the person might do in the private sector.

The more senior the official — or the closer the private sector work relates to contracts or other business over which the former government official once had authority — the stricter the rules are.

In most cases, officials must wait one to two years before lobbying for or representing a company.

The Warren-Kim legislation would impose a new four-year ban on top contractors hiring senior Defense officials and on contractors hiring former Pentagon employees who managed any of that company’s contracts. 

It would extend — from two to four years — the existing prohibition on former military generals lobbying the Pentagon and would expand the restrictions to other senior officials.

It would extend from two years to four years the amount of time before a DOD employee who once worked for a particular contractor can participate in any matter that might affect the financial interests of their former employer or its direct competitor.

The bill would also bar senior Defense officials from owning any stock in a major defense contractor that receives more than $100 million in revenue from Pentagon contracts.

It would also prohibit senior national security officials from working on behalf of foreign governments. Moreover, it would bar military and civilian intelligence personnel from working on behalf of either foreign governments or a private entity that operates predominantly on behalf of a foreign government.

The measure has a number of new transparency requirements as well. It would mandate that large defense contractors submit a report of their lobbying activities. It would require the secretary of Defense to publish online copies of unclassified contracts.

It would require the military services to maintain public websites with the names, biographies, financial disclosures and audit and other reports about top officers.

The National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics, a group of government advocacy professionals, took issue with the Warren-Kim proposal.

“Let us not spend time demonizing good people for our own political gain,” the group said in a June 20 statement. “Actions like these undermine our democracy and Constitution.”

Lobbyist legions

Warren produced a report in April detailing 672 cases in 2022 of “former government officials, military officers, Members of Congress, and senior legislative staff” working for top-20 American defense contractors. 

Nearly half the contractor executives worked for the top five Pentagon defense contractors — those that build major weapons, military aircraft, warships, ground vehicles, rockets and satellites.

Some of the ex-officials have become board members or senior executives, but almost all — fully 91 percent — took jobs as registered lobbyists for the contractors, either working in-house or hired by the companies.

The number of ex-officials peddling influence for defense contractors is probably larger still, because many former government employees are not registered lobbyists but still perform advocacy work for defense corporations using titles such as consultant.

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