Revolving Door Keeps Spinning with Armed Services Committee Staff

Revolving door

Last week House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) announced his staff director Bob Simmons was leaving the committee to work for the private sector. Subsequent reporting by Politico and The Hill confirmed he was going to work for Boeing, which received contracts worth $14.6 billion in fiscal year 2015 from the Defense Department and $16.6 billion from the federal government overall (making it the second-largest recipient of all federal contract dollars). He’s not alone: earlier this year the Professional Services Council (PSC), a trade association representing service contractors and $147.9 billion in Pentagon spending last year, announced they had hired the Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC) point person on acquisition reform, Bill Greenwalt, as a senior adviser. PSC said Greenwalt’s “vast experience in the legislative and executive branches…will provide tremendous value to our member companies.”

The Armed Services Committees authorize about $600 billion in spending each year, are responsible for overseeing $1.4 trillion in major weapon systems, and are the primary architects of regulations governing the Pentagon’s contracts. While these two examples are of Republicans, a staffer from these committees going on to work for entities with substantial business before the committee they worked for is not unusual or particular to any political party. Former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer for then-Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) John Barnes became a Raytheon lobbyist, as did Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and aide to then-Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) William Lynn. Lynn later became Deputy Secretary of Defense, receiving the first ethics waiver of the Obama administration. 

A 2010 London School of Economics study found there were powerful incentives to become a lobbyist while one’s boss is still in office, finding “lobbyists with past working experience in the office of a US Senator suffer a 24% drop in revenue –around $177,000– when their ex-employers leaves office.” And a Politico investigation published last year found lobbying reforms instituted in 2007 have only made the influence industry more difficult to track. All of this shows a disturbing pattern of “swamp”-like behavior that causes many taxpayers to question the integrity of spending decisions made in Washington.

Congressional Ethics Rules Contain Numerous Conflict of Interest Loopholes

According to Legistorm, last year Simmons was paid $172,500 and Greenwalt was paid about $170,000, qualifying both of them as “very senior staff” under House Ethics Rules and Senate Ethics Rules. That designation triggers special post-employment restrictions which do not apply to very senior staff who earn less than $130,500 or received the “senior staff rate” for fewer than 60 days.  Under those rules, there is a one year “cooling off” period when they cannot lobby any Members who currently or in the previous 12 months served on the committee they worked on. Those rules also bar them from knowingly representing or advising foreign governments and foreign political parties for one year, and from lobbying staff of Members in lieu of lobbying the Members directly during that cooling off period.

Violating these rules could constitute a felony under 18 U.S.C. 207, but according to data published by the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, these violations are rarely prosecuted. Nothing in these rules, however, precludes former staffers from advising their new employer about their lobbying strategy—a loophole seemingly exploited by former Representative and recently confirmed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. There also isn’t any specific prohibition against using proprietary or sensitive information they may have learned in their roles in the committee as long as it does not take the form of a “statement” based on special knowledge gained through that role. That said, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act made clear Congress is not exempt from insider trading laws. Former staffers may also contact Members, officers, and employees of the other legislative chamber (so the Senate is fair game for Simmons and the House for Greenwalt), and they may lobby their colleagues on the other Armed Services Committee or Defense Department they were previously charged with overseeing as long as they are not representing a foreign government or a foreign political party.

When former congressional staffers must recuse themselves can be a little hazy. According to the House Ethics Committee’s December 2016 guidance memo, very senior staff must notify the House Ethics Committee within three business days of beginning negotiations or agreement for future employment with a private entity, and must recuse themselves from “any matter in which there is a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict.” But “negotiation” is open to interpretation, and it has been defined by the courts as “a communication between two parties with a view to reaching an agreement.” In layman’s terms, this means the communication can be fairly far along the lines of haggling over a job before a staffer is obligated to inform the House Ethics Committee. The memo contradicts, however, an August 2016 final rule published by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) in which OGE states that submitting a resume to a specific employer would necessitate notification and recusal. The House Ethics Committee says “merely sending a copy of one’s resume is not considered ‘negotiating’ for future employment.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee did not respond to questions from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) about its knowledge of Greenwalt’s job negotiations and its plan for handling potential conflicts of interest.

House Armed Services Committee Republican staff told POGO they believed Simmons had informed them in an appropriately timely manner about the status of negotiations with Boeing, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry removed Simmons from his staff director duties, including all legislative decisions for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), once he was notified. The committee said removing him from those duties should curtail conflicts and reduce the possibility of retaliation against other staffers who raise concerns. Both Republican and Democratic committee staff were asked to review their work portfolios and report potential conflicts of interest to the committee’s General Counsel. Staff were also told they had an ongoing obligation to enforce that recusal by not bringing those issues before Simmons. Thornberry offered his personal email to staff for any who did not feel comfortable reporting their concerns to the General Counsel.

When asked specifically by POGO about whether Simmons’s new position posed conflicts for the Chairman’s upcoming acquisition reform legislation, the Committee’s General Counsel  said he didn’t see any direct financial conflicts yet, but that it would be judged by whether the language in the bill departed from positions taken in previous legislation or reflected the policy positions of Boeing or industry associations the company belonged to. That means, for example, any legislation to weaken the Pentagon’s testing office would likely not give rise to a conflict because that was the committee’s previous position.

House staff also told POGO that their transparent legislative process—unlike the Senate’s largely closed markup—should act as an additional check against conflicts of interest.

Both Simmons’s and Greenwalt’s decisions to go work for the industries they were once charged with overseeing are reprehensible, and cast a pall across their work by raising the question of whether they were doing what was best for the military and taxpayers or were instead acting in the best interest of the industries they hoped would employ them after they left Congress. Yet despite the weak requirements of the law, Chairman Thornberry seems to be making genuine efforts to minimize the reputational damage caused by Simmons’s decision to go through the revolving door.

Part of the Larger Phenomenon of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Simmons and Greenwalt are the latest example of Armed Services Committee Staff who go through the revolving door. In 2012 POGO reported that a former Lockheed Martin lobbyist became staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, which we described as “terribly disappointing.” The previous year, the House’s committee hired a former Northrop Grumman lobbyist, who received a large severance and bonus payment and owned between $100,000 and $250,000 in the company’s stock. Simmons’s previous boss, former committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, opened a consulting and lobbying firm shortly after leaving Congress. Lockheed Martin quickly signed him up as a lobbyist for the committee’s annual authorization bill, as did General Dynamics, L-3 Communications, and other major defense contractors. McKeon also added the government of Saudi Arabia as a client almost as soon as the rules would allow.

Last year, the defense aerospace industry spent $73 million on lobbying the federal government. While it is unclear if Simmons’s or Greenwalt’s roles will include lobbying or require them to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, information gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) and Legistorm shows they would be among many other former congressional staffers who have become lobbyists for Boeing and the Professional Services Council. Records for 2016 show three former Democratic Members of Congress (but no former Republican Members) and 42 former congressional staffers have registered to lobby for Boeing. Of the partisan staff who became lobbyists, 14 were Democrats and 23 were Republicans. For the Professional Services Council, 5 were Democrats and 8 were Republicans.

The following is the full list of congressional members and staff turned lobbyists. The sheer quantity shows why many think the budget and appropriations processes are mired in self-dealing rather than what is best for our military and taxpayers.

Boeing:

Professional Services Council:

Scott Amey and Lydia Dennett from POGO, and Daniel Schuman from Demand Progress also contributed to this reporting.

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger

By: Mandy Smithberger, Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project

Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.