Nearly 700 former Pentagon officials, congressional lawmakers and staffers, and other federal employees now work for major military contractors, primarily as lobbyists, confirming that the revolving door between the U.S. government and the weapons industry is "still spinning rapidly" and must be closed through "legislative and regulatory overhauls."
That's according to Pentagon Alchemy: How Defense Officials Pass Through the Revolving Door and Peddle Brass for Gold, a report published Wednesday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.
"The abuse of the revolving door between government service and the private sector can corrupt government decision-making," says the report. "When government officials cash in on their public service by lobbying, advising, or serving as board members and executives for the companies they used to regulate, it undermines public officials' integrity and casts doubt on the fairness of government contracting. This problem is incredibly concerning and pronounced in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the United States' defense industry."
Warren's analysis found "672 cases in 2022 in which the top 20 defense contractors had former government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior legislative staff working for them as lobbyists, board members, or senior executives. In 91% of these cases, the individuals that went through the revolving door became registered lobbyists for big defense contractors."
"The sheer size of America's military budget provides ample and lucrative opportunities for former government officials," the report notes. "Last year Congress gave the DOD over $851 billion in total funding. The DOD is also the largest federal contracting agency: Of the total $692.3 billion in contracts awarded by the federal government in FY 2021, 61% were awarded by DOD amounting to $386.9 billion."
That almost 40% of Pentagon contracts were awarded to just 10 corporations is "unsurprising" given the consolidation of the arms-making business, states the report. "After waves of mergers and acquisitions, competition has decreased significantly—from over 50 firms to just five large rivals—decreasing DOD's ability to choose from a broad range of competitors."
It goes without saying that injecting more competition into the contracting process would not necessarily address the more fundamental problem of escalating military spending, which is what private companies—big and small alike—are feasting on.
The largest war profiteers, however, often hire the most revolving-door lobbyists and put the most ex-government officials on their boards, the analysis points out, increasing their chances of appropriating more public money.
According to the report, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Electric (GE) employed the most former government officials as of last year. Boeing has hired 85, including six high-ranking executives, two board members, and 77 registered lobbyists. Raytheon has hired 64, including one executive, three board members, and 60 registered lobbyists. GE, for its part, has hired 60 revolving-door lobbyists.
Those three corporations are far from alone. Pentagon contractors in general are hiring hundreds of former military and civilian officials from both major parties and across administrations into executive roles, board positions, and lobbyist jobs.
As the report makes clear, "This practice is widespread in the defense industry, giving, at minimum, the appearance of corruption and favoritism, and potentially increasing the chance that DOD spending results in ineffective weapons and programs, bad deals, and waste of taxpayer dollars."
Notably, the Pentagon recently failed its fifth consecutive annual audit while nearly 40 million people in the U.S. languish in poverty.
According to the report:
Current federal ethics laws that are supposed to regulate the revolving door are overly complex and often insufficient to prevent conflicts of interest. Indeed, even though the DOD has improved certain practices, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that DOD could further enhance its compliance efforts by amending regulations to require contractors to demonstrate their employees' compliance with post-government employment lobbying restrictions established in the National Defense Authorization Act. Post-government employment restrictions remain an impossibly confusing "tangled mess" that hinders effective implementation and compliance—and keeps the revolving door spinning.
The revolving door swings both ways. For instance, before U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was nominated by President Joe Biden to lead the Pentagon, the retired Army general was a member of Raytheon's board of directors.
During a Wednesday hearing of her Senate Armed Services subcommittee, Warren questioned Pentagon staff and ethics experts about revolving-door hiring, new revelations about former U.S. government officials working for foreign governments, and the problems posed by current executive branch personnel owning stock in companies affected by their decisions.
The lawmaker reiterated her demand for far-reaching ethics reforms at the Pentagon and across the federal government.
While Warren's Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act aims to increase transparency and combat conflicts of interest throughout Washington, her Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act, introduced in 2019 and again in 2022, is tailored to cleaning up issues at the Pentagon.
As the report explains:
This legislation would impose a four-year ban on giant contractors from hiring DOD officials and prevent them from hiring former DOD employees who managed their contracts. The act would also require defense contractors to submit detailed annual reports to DOD regarding former senior DOD officials who are subsequently employed by contractors. The act also bans senior DOD officials from owning any stock in a major defense contractor and bans all DOD employees from owning any stock in contractors if the employee can use their official position to influence the stock's value. Lastly, the act raises the recusal standard for DOD employees by prohibiting them from participating in any matter that affects the financial interests of their former employer for four years.
"These safeguards would slow the revolving door, improving government ethics and bolstering the integrity of the DOD contracting process—actions that, as this investigation demonstrates, are desperately needed," the report concludes.
Last year, the Institute for Policy Studies' National Priorities Project published a report showing that the U.S. has spent more than $21 trillion on militarization since September 11, 2001.
Citing that analysis, Jacobin's Luke Savage argued at the time that the nation's military spending—now even higher than it was at the height of the Cold War—is not only wasteful but also inherently anti-democratic:
Military spending allocated for 2022 considerably exceeds the cost of five separate Green New Deal bills. For a miniscule fraction of what America spent on the two-decade-long "war on terror," it could have fully decarbonized its electricity grid, eradicated student debt, offered free preschool, and funded the wildly popular and effective Covid-era's anti-poverty child tax credit for at least a decade. Spending public funds so lavishly on war inevitably means not spending them elsewhere, and it's incredible to imagine what even a fraction of the money sucked up every year by America's bloated military-industrial complex could accomplish if invested differently.
Fundamentally, however, the case against the Pentagon's ever-expanding budget is a democratic one. Every year, the government of the world's most powerful country now allocates more than half of its discretionary funds to what is laughably called "defense spending"—regardless, it turns out, of whether the nation is at risk of attack or officially at war.
"Corporate capture of Congress is a problem in most major policy areas," wrote Savage, "but defense contractors and other military concerns have a stranglehold that is arguably unmatched."
Approximately 55% of all Pentagon spending went to private sector military contractors from FY 2002 to FY 2021, according to Stephen Semler of the Security Policy Reform Institute. If that privatization of funds rate continues this year, weapons dealers can expect to rake in well over $400 billion of the current $858 billion military budget.
This content originally appeared on Common Dreams and was authored by Kenny Stancil.