July 28, 2022

ICYMI: At Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, Defense Nominee Agrees to Work with Senator Warren to Address Conflicts of Interest and Ethics at the Pentagon

Warren: “We've got to do a lot more to end the cozy relationship between the Pentagon and the defense industry” Warren: “This is a problem across administrations and across government agencies, but it is particularly acute at DoD given the size of the Pentagon's budget. A lot of money is at stake here.”

Video of Hearing Exchange (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. – At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee today, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised concerns to Dr. Radha Plumb, nominated to be Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, about continued weaknesses in revolving door laws and the ongoing need to address conflicts of interest between the Pentagon and private defense contractors. 

In response to Senator Warren’s questions, Dr. Plumb, committed to working with Senator Warren  and the Senate Armed Services Committee to strengthen ethics standards at the Pentagon without hurting the ability to attract top talent in public service. Plumb also agreed that current ethics laws are not strong enough to prevent those conflicts and that “there's absolutely space to make progress.”

Senator Warren has long advocated limiting the revolving door and restricting the influence of defense contractors. Last July Senator Warren reintroduced her Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act (S. 2396). The bill would enforce limits to the influence of contractors on the military, restrict foreign influence on retired senior military officers, and assert greater transparency over contractors and their interaction with the Department of Defense. Most recently, she has pushed for and received agreement from President Biden's DoD nominees, including Secretary Lloyd Austin, to extend their ethics agreements and industry recusals from two years to four years and to avoid seeking waivers to their ethics agreements.

Transcript: Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing to examine the nominations of Milancy Danielle Harris, of Virginia, and Radha Iyengar Plumb, of New York, both to be a Deputy Under Secretary, and Brendan Owens, of Virginia, and Laura Taylor-Kale, of California, both to be an Assistant Secretary, all of the Department of Defense.

U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee

Tuesday, July 28, 2022

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and congratulations to all of you. I want to thank Senator Tillis. I so appreciate his partnership in our work on military housing and he’s asked my questions so I think Mr. Owens knows that Senator Tillis and I, and this entire Committee, is going to stay on this issue. It’s powerfully important to our military and to our national defense, and also it's about what's right. So I'm going to try to be efficient and ask about some other issues. And what I'd like to focus on is conflicts of interest and ethics at the Pentagon.

This year the Pentagon's budget is going to exceed $800 billion. About half that spending is going to go to for-profit defense contractors to build weapons, to perform maintenance, and to provide consulting services. Contract and program decisions should be based on what's in the best interests of national security. Period. But the revolving door between the Pentagon and private defense contractors sometimes spins so fast it just looks like a blur. Senior Pentagon officials leaving work for Lockheed or Boeing. Top lobbyists or executives from these companies coming into government to hand out contracts to their former employers.

You know, real or perceived conflicts of interest undermine the public's confidence, and can also lead to program delays or even cancellation. 

So Dr. Plumb, you have been nominated to a top role in the part of the Pentagon that focuses on acquisition. Can you say a word about your views about why it is important that government officials making decisions about which defense contractors get taxpayer dollars must be free from conflicts of interest?

Dr. Radha Plumb: Senator, thank you and thank you for your leadership on this issue. As you note, it is just so important at the Department that our number one job is to deliver capabilities to the warfighter and those capabilities need to be selected to get the best capabilities and that means that conflict of interests, apparent or actual, can undermine as you know, that trust, but also make it harder for key new ideas to break through and get into that process. We have a number of efforts underway, ethics agreements in this administration, improved oversight of our standards of conduct. If confirmed, I pledge to continue those, but also more to fulsomely work with you and this committee to make sure we're getting this balance right, getting the conflicts out.

Senator Warren: Well that's a really good point about how conflicts of interest can actually keep us from finding the best products, from innovating in the ways we need to innovate – a very strong point. So let's talk about the things we can do in order to reduce the conflicts of interest. You know, through the years I have proposed a number of changes to strengthen our ethics laws. Now, some of my colleagues think that strong ethics requirements will stop people from wanting to go into government. There have been at least 10, 10, government funded studies now on this exact issue, how to improve the recruitment and retention of the federal workforce, and not a single one of them has concluded that ethics laws are the barrier. When we talked last week, you said that we need to consider both needing to attract and retain people who want to solve big problems and preventing the appearance of self-dealing. Dr. Plumb, do you agree that we could strengthen ethics standards at the Pentagon without hurting our ability to attract top talent in public service?

Dr. Plumb: Senator, I do agree. I think we need to think about how we structure and make precise our ethics requirements and our oversight so that we can attract top talent, let them work on hard problems, let them solve hard problems for this country, while making sure we avoid conflicts of interest. And there's absolutely space to make progress there. And I, if confirmed, would really welcome an opportunity to work on that with you.

Senator Warren:  Well, I think you've already answered then the question I was going to ask and that is will you commit to working with me to ensure that government officials working on acquisition programs and policies are free of conflicts of interest?

Dr. Plumb: Senator, I would welcome an opportunity to work with you on that, thank you.  

Senator Warren:  That is terrific. Thank you very much. This is a problem across administrations and across government agencies, but it is particularly acute at DoD given the size of the Pentagon's budget. A lot of money is at stake here. Our last three secretaries of defense came to DoD straight from the board or from being a lobbyist for the Pentagon's top five contractors. We've got to do a lot more to end the cozy relationship between the Pentagon and the defense industry. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.