Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greets Gen. Robert B. Neller, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, prior to a Senate Armed Services Committee on April 9, 2019.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greets Gen. Robert B. Neller, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, prior to a Senate Armed Services Committee on April 9, 2019. Getty Images / Alex Edelman

Coerced Ethics Pledges Harm National Defense

There is a process for changing the law, and extortion of individual DOD nominees is not it.

No good will come of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to extort extra-legal “ethics” commitments from defense execs nominated for Pentagon jobs. The Massachusetts Democrat’s crusade will only discourage otherwise qualified and willing individuals from serving, ultimately reducing the effectiveness of those positions. 

Last week, Warren released her lengthy hold on two Pentagon nominations only after the nominees promised to wait four years—instead of the two required by law—before returning to jobs in the defense industry. In January, she pressured Lloyd Austin, then the nominee for defense secretary—to recuse himself from matters concerning his former employer for double the legally required time.

We ask a lot of those who serve in government, and these unwarranted demands risk not only frustrating the administration’s efforts to find the best leaders for key defense positions, but also constraining nominees’ ability to lead.

Consider Secretary Austin’s predicament. At Warren’s behest, he is now pledged to stay out of any Pentagon decision-making regarding defense giant Raytheon for the rest of President Biden’s term, rather than the two years he would have been legally required to do so. 

Given that Raytheon is the country’s second-largest defense contractor, it’s hard to think of a Pentagon program in which it is not a player. Essentially, being frozen out of any matters involving Raytheon and its subsidiaries means Joe Biden’s defense secretary will have no say in most major acquisition decisions made during his presidency.  

Warren has apparently coerced pledges similar to Austin’s from Frank Kendall, the nominee to lead the Air Force; and Heidi Shyu, the candidate to head the Pentagon’s research and engineering office. Needlessly extending their recusal periods from decisions affecting their former defense employers will similarly constrain their effectiveness. 

Warren justifies these strong-arm tactics based on her belief that “coziness” between Pentagon leaders and the defense industry tilts “countless decisions” in favor of giant corporations. But neither Warren—nor anyone else, for that matter—has produced a scrap of evidence that such collusion occurs. Indeed, those who have worked in the Pentagon know that countless ethics rules and multiple layers of legal reviews make it highly unlikely an unscrupulous Pentagon leader could steer undeserved business to a former employer.    

Moreover, many believe a close association between the Pentagon and the defense industry is more important now than ever before. Former Defense Undersecretary Ellen Lord, a former Textron executive, believes that, so long as ethics rules are obeyed, it is a “very healthy thing” for executives to move back and forth between industry and the Pentagon, promoting understanding and communication. 

Note: this collaboration is not the “military-industrial complex” of which President Eisenhower warned. Close cooperation between the Pentagon and industry is essential if the U.S. is going to be able to deter China and the nefarious cast of characters who threaten American interests.

Warren tried the same stunt in 2019 when Mark Esper was nominated to be Army secretary. She demanded he double his recusals, but Esper would not back down. When Warren called Esper’s refusal to double the ethics standards “outrageous,” he fired right back: “I’ve lived an ethical life, 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.”

Now, in addition to coercing extended recusals, Warren has even demanded Pentagon nominees—once they are done serving—to commit to never working as a defense corporation board member or lobbyist. Austin made such a commitment at his hearing. Reportedly, Kendall and Shyu have agreed to extend the time required before they can rejoin their chosen professions in the defense industry. 

So, just exactly where does Senator Warren expect to find the hard-nosed, experienced leaders needed to serve in the Pentagon if Congress makes it so challenging and financially punishing for those coming from the defense industry to return to their former profession?  

Academia? Not likely. You would be hard-pressed to find men and women in the Academy who can lead one of the largest and most complex organizations in the world. Politicians? Perhaps, although it is usually former business leaders turned politicians who have enjoyed the most success in these leadership roles. And while I work in a think tank and greatly respect my co-workers, think tanks are not typically where you find executives qualified to lead a $700 billion global enterprise.  

Granted, the defense industry is not the only place such leaders can be found, but it has proved to be a good place to look. 

Congress should act in a manner to encourage, not discourage, service in these thankless Pentagon posts. Senator Warren may indeed wish to change existing ethics laws, but there is a process for changing the law, and extortion of individual DOD nominees is not it. 

Rather than place additional obstacles and delay in the path of patriotic individuals willing to serve their country, Sen. Warren and Congress should be making it easier.

A retired Army lieutenant general, Thomas Spoehr is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.