Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, speaks during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, speaks during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP

Austin Pledges to Recuse Himself from Military Decisions Involving Raytheon

The commitment is a huge win for Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other progressive Democrats pushing for stricter lobbying laws.

Updated on Jan. 20 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern to include comments from Ellen Lord, defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment.

Lloyd Austin pledged to recuse himself for four years from making decisions that involve his current employer Raytheon Technologies should the Senate confirm him as defense secretary.

The pledge — which doubles the recusal period required by law — is a win for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other progressive Democrats who in recent years have pushed for stricter ethics laws.

Austin appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon for his confirmation hearing

“I can pledge to you that I'll be mindful not only of the legal requirements that govern my conduct, but also of the appearances to ensure that the public has no reason to question my impartiality,” said Austin, who sits on Raytheon’s board of directors. “And I'll consult with the DoD career ethics officials on these issues and will require everyone that serves with me to ensure that public service is and will remain a public trust.”

Austin also contemplated the possibility that a question involving Raytheon could arise that requires defense secretary-level input. He pledged he would seek alternatives before seeking a waiver. He also said he does not intend to go work for a defense company or as a lobbyist after his service.

“With respect to the issue of seeking a waiver, I do not expect to do that, or to need one,” he said. “But if such an unanticipated circumstance were to arise, I would consider available alternatives to a waiver before seeking one and would consult very carefully with the agency ethics officials.”

Warren, who sparred with former Defense Secretary Mark Esper during his Senate confirmation hearing over his refusal to commit to recusing himself from dealing with his former employer after his two-year mandate expired, praised Austin’s decision.

“Going above and beyond what federal law requires, as you are doing here, sends powerful message that you are working on behalf of the American people, and no one else,” she said at the hearing.

Before considering Austin to become defense secretary, Congress must first grant him a waiver allowing him to do so since he has been retired for fewer than seven years. While it’s not uncommon for both Republicans and Democrats to nominate defense executives for top Pentagon posts, Austin, if confirmed, would be the third consecutive defense secretary to have come to the Defense Department directly from the defense industry. 

The topic has arisen for former retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, who sat on the board of General Dynamics before becoming defense secretary.  Mattis returned to his board seat soon after resigning his post in late 2018.

Esper was Raytheon’s top lobbyist before becoming Army secretary in 2017. The Senate confirmed him as defense secretary in July 2019, but not until Warren, who was running for president at the time, had a fiery exchange with Esper over his work as Raytheon’s top lobbyist.

“I’ve lived an ethical life,” Esper said. “I’m going to continue to live by those ethics, those principles whether it involves Raytheon or any other company for that matter. It’s my commitment to the nation’s security. It’s my commitment to the men and women in uniform that drives me, not anything else.”

The so-called revolving door — or the former government and military officials going to work within an industry that he or she served as a customer or regulator of, or industry executives going to work within government — has always been a topic of debate, but it’s gained more notoriety in recent years following the Trump administration’s nominating former executives for government posts.

Warren and other Progressive Democrats have been vocal in their disapproval of former executives serving in government posts where they could make decisions impacting their former employer’s bottom line. 

Even though Austin has committed to recuse himself, there could still be questions of his unbiasedness to his former employer. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a career-long Boeing executive who was confirmed as deputy defense secretary in 2017, was investigated and eventually cleared of allegations he favored his former employer and disparaged its top rival, Lockheed Martin. 

“I think it was an admirable and necessary commitment, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the 

Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, said of Austin’s pledge to recuse himself for four years. “There will continue to be questions about whether the company will be unfairly favored, just as Shanahan encountered about Boeing throughout his tenure, but this was an important step for Austin to take to check undue industry influence.”

Most within the Pentagon and industry dismiss the notion of corruption among former government officials going to work in the defense industry or industry executives leaving their employers to serve in government. Current and former defense officials said in their experience, a person coming into a top Pentagon post from the defense industry typically goes out of his or her way to avoid even the perception of favoring a former employer. Some believe having officials who have worked in both industry and government bring a unique understanding of how each side operates.

“I believe coming in from industry, you can also translate some of what might be considered Pentagon sort of jargon into terms that are meaningful for those and industry because we don't always all use the same lexicon,” Ellen Lord, the outgoing defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “It's very easy to talk past one another and believe that we're communicating and understanding.”

Before coming to the Pentagon in 2017, Lord was CEO of Textron Systems. She said there is a “vigilant process” to ensure ethics rules are being followed at all times. During her tenure at the Pentagon, there have been exchanges between government and industry officials so they get a better understanding of each other’s business practices.

“It really does promote an understanding [of how each side works],” she said. “As long as you know, ethical standards are upheld, it's a very healthy thing to have a transition back and forth.”