During Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing of Lloyd Austin, President Joe Biden’s pick for Defense secretary, something unusual happened: A senator called out the nominee for ties to industry in the senator’s own state.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked Austin, a recently retired four-star Army general, if he would affirm his commitment to recusing himself from matters involving Raytheon Co., one of the nation’s largest defense contractors where Austin sits on the board, for four years.
Austin had previously promised a one-year recusal period from matters involving the company, which is headquartered in Waltham, Mass. But Austin quickly assured the senator that he would extend that window.
“Well I just want you to know I really do appreciate that, general. Going above and beyond what federal law requires as you are doing here sends a powerful message that you are working on behalf of the American people and no one else,” Warren said.
Warren also pressed Austin on his commitment to steering clear of perceived conflicts of interest as Defense secretary, and to avoid working as a lobbyist for a defense contractor following his service at the helm of the Pentagon.
Raytheon reported an annual revenue of over $97.5 billion in 2020. Austin could get as much as $1.7 million in payouts from the defense contractor should he give up his seat on the board to become the Defense secretary, according to an ethics agreement filed by Austin ahead of his confirmation hearing.
The line of questioning is unusual for Capitol Hill, where members typically welcome home state industry connections as a potential boon for their constituents.
But it isn't unusual for Warren. During a July 2019 hearing on the nomination of Mark T. Esper to serve as Defense secretary, Warren pressed Esper on his refusal to recuse himself from any matters involving Raytheon — his former employer.
And during a January 2018 speech on the Senate floor, Warren urged her fellow senators to reject the nomination of John Rood to be Defense undersecretary for policy, citing his refusal to commit to not seek a waiver from his ethics agreement.
“Warren has been consistent, and is a real leader on addressing corruption issues. It’s admirable that it doesn’t start at the water’s edge — she’s willing to hold everyone accountable,” said Mandy Smithberger, a director at the Project on Government Oversight.
“But I was disappointed to see she was the only one raising these concerns,” Smithberger said.
Dan Auble, a senior researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics, said Austin’s recusal might be less meaningful than it seems, however.
“To some extent, Austin’s affirmations are a reflection of Biden’s signaling a more stringent focus on conflicts of interest and revolving door ethics issues,” Auble said.
“But the fact remains that Raytheon does billions and billions of dollars in business with the Pentagon, so what does Austin’s recusal mean, exactly?” Auble said. “Often people will recuse themselves from matters that directly affect the organization, but he won’t recuse himself from all missile-related decisions — some that might affect Raytheon.”
According to Smithberger, the only real way to address some of these ethical issues is through legislation. But such efforts to halt the proverbial revolving door between industry and government are often difficult to to realize.
Just hours before the end of President Donald Trump’s term Wednesday, he rescinded an executive order that limited federal administration officials from lobbying the government or working for foreign countries after leaving their jobs.
“Former President Bill Clinton did the same thing to help his political appointees,” said Smithberger, “and those kinds of actions are unfortunately confirming people’s worst fears about corruption and government.”
The House is expected to vote Thursday on a waiver for Austin from a seven-year "cooling-off period" required for former military before taking over the top civilian post at the Pentagon. Austin retired from the military in 2016. It's unclear when the Senate would follow suit and, assuming both chambers approve the waiver, ultimately confirm the nominee.