No SECDEF with defense contractor ties, House progressives ask of Biden

Two House progressives have asked President-elect Joe Biden to select a secretary of defense without a history of employment through defense contractors.

Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., argued in a letter sent Tuesday that recent Pentagon chiefs have been too strongly linked to the defense industry.

“The most recent Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, who was fired by Donald Trump yesterday, was employed as a lobbyist for Raytheon prior to being appointed,” Lee and Pocan wrote. “His predecessor, Patrick Shanahan, was a 30-year Boeing executive … And Jim Mattis, President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, served on the board of General Dynamics for four years before being noticed by the president.”

Nearly half of all senior Pentagon officials are connected to military contractors, the two House representatives added, later referencing President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which warned against ceding unwarranted influence to the military-industrial complex.

“It is unsurprising that the largest defense budgets in our nation’s history have come at a time during which senior defense personnel are intimately connected — through past, and future, employment — to the corporations profiting the most from those very same budgets,” Lee and Pocan wrote.

While both lawmakers are members of House Appropriations Committee and the recently established Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, neither exerts much influence on defense issues.

Congress’ oversight of high-ranking executive branch positions is relegated to the Senate, which confirms presidential appointees and where progressives like Lee and Pocan have less sway.

The ask, however, signals potential dissatisfaction with how Biden’s national security apparatus is already taking shape.

The letter came as Biden announced his Pentagon landing team, one-third of whom have been defense industry consultants or members of think tanks that take large contributions from military contractors and weapons manufacturers.

Leading the team is Kathleen Hicks, a former member of the Barack Obama administration, who comes from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which benefits from large contributions made by companies like Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics.

Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy under Obama, is also an early favorite as Biden’s defense secretary.

Flournoy left her Pentagon position in 2012 to work for Boston Consulting Group, where defense contracts grew from $1.6 million to $32 million after hiring her as a senior advisor, according to the Project on Government Oversight.

Flournoy also co-founded the Center for a New American Security think tank, which “had an annual budget of about $9 million, and defense contractors donated at least $3.8 million while she was CEO,” reads an American Prospect profile from July. “By 2017, she was making $452,000 a year.”

A Biden transition team official cautioned Politico against judging Biden’s picks before they’ve been selected, saying that the “core mission of the agency review teams is fact-finding, not writing policy.”

Others have appeared more bullish regarding the status quo.

“Obviously there is a concern that defense spending will go way down if there is a Biden administration, but frankly I think that’s ridiculous,” Raytheon CEO Gregory Hayes told CNBC in late October.

“I think the industry will have, when it comes to national security, a very positive view” of Biden’s tenure, retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, who now works as a defense consultant, told the Washington Post.

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