President Donald J. Trump promised to drain the D.C. Swamp and to keep his administration clear of lobbying interests. The president has done a good job of keeping promises to cut taxes, reduce regulations and show restraint in foreign policy, yet he needs to focus more on keeping special interests out of the decision-making process in his administration. The Pentagon of course is naturally involved in defense contracting, with many being promoted to jobs at the Department of Defense having come right out of the defense industry.
The president has promoted ideas that will help to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests in his administration. As reported by Politico, candidate Trump promised on October 17, 2016 “I am proposing a package of ethics reforms to make our government honest once again.” The proposed reforms included a five year ban on lobbying from people working for the executive branch, no lobbying for foreign governments, former Members of Congress would be barred from lobbying for five years, ending the practice of former legislators consulting or advising for a lobbying firm, and banning any lobbyist who is registered as a foreign agent from contributing to a campaign. The president has constantly talked about “Draining the Swamp,” and he has made progress while not solving a problem that still permeates Washington’s establishment class.
One of the biggest problems with government is the “revolving door” between special interests and government service. Victor Davis Hanson on March 7, 2019 wrote in National Review, “besides the Washington press and pundit corps, Donald Trump faced this third and more formidable opponent: the culture of permanent and senior employees of the federal and state governments, and political appointees in Washington, who revolve in and out from business, think tanks, lobbying firms, universities, and the media.” The problem is identified as a ruling class of D.C. insiders who go in and out of government that helps special interests line their pockets with government cash.
When Patrick Shanahan was nominated to be the new Secretary of Defense by President Trump, before he withdrew, he was accused of being favorable to his former employer Boeing. Military Times reported on March 13, 2019, “a government watchdog group has asked the Department of Defense Inspector General to investigate whether Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan violated ethics rules by promoting Boeing weapons systems while serving as a government official.” Shanahan was cleared on April 25, 2019 of any favoritism by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, yet the appearance of a conflict clearly hurt his nomination.
The controversy stems from an epic battle between defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin over purchase of the F-15 versus the F-35 fighter jets. The F-15 has been used by the military for years and has compiled a proven, legendary history in the U.S. Air Force in close-air battles. The F-35 is a stealth aircraft that has had some cost concerns, yet provides crucial variety in different fighter jet capabilities, offering the Department of Defense diversity in the tools they need to fight a modern war. Both fighter jets are necessary, yet there has been a pitched battle in Congress and at the Pentagon favoring one fighter jet to the exclusion of the other.
There is a new twist to this controversy with a former Lockheed Martin official being promoted to run the military branch of the Pentagon. Government Contracting reported on June 23, 2019 that Ryan McCarthy has been promoted to succeed the new Defense Secretary nominee Mark Esper. McCarty “previously served as VP of the F-35 sustainment program at Lockheed Martin.” This may be another opportunity for outside ethics groups to file a complaint making the case that an individual who worked on the F-35 contract with the Department of Defense should be recused from all negotiations and decisions about F-35 procurement. This shows that the Pentagon acreage of the D.C. Swamp still has influence over these decisions.
The Pentagon is an active place for the revolving door of swamp dwelling special interests to go help out former employers. President Trump should focus his efforts on defense contracting in a way that will prevent any undue influence from special interests gaming the contracting process in favor of one contractor over another. Even the appearance of a conflict should be addressed to restore the confidence of the American people that their tax dollars are not being misused, or directed towards a big special interest influence in Washington, D.C.
Denison Smith is a former assistant attorney general for the state of Idaho, served on the staff of former Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), and as trustee of the Reason Foundation. He has over three decades of experience in investment banking, including as the former regional vice president of the Pioneer Fund of Boston, the fourth oldest mutual fund in the United States.