Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Reform — or Repeat? Congress Fills New Pentagon Reform Panel with Revolving Door Regulars

The new defense acquisition and budgeting reform commission is full of industry hacks.
(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

The membership list of the Pentagon’s latest acquisition and budgeting reform panel reads like a who’s who of the defense industry. Of the 14 seats on the Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Reform, 11 are occupied by individuals with defense sector ties. There is only one seat left to fill.

Congress established the “independent commission” to examine and reform the Pentagon’s acquisition and budgeting processes. While the commission is new — a product of annual defense legislation for fiscal year 2022 — the Pentagon’s centralized planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process is over 60 years old. With major weapon programs taking an entire generation to reach maturity, it is obvious the process is broken. Changes need to be made, but not just in a way that benefits defense contractors.

Planning, programming, budgeting, and execution in the services can be painfully slow. It takes at least two years to get funding for a new program. In some cases, technologies are already obsolete by the time they’re cleared to even begin the formal development stage. The commission is tasked with reviewing the whole process and proposing reforms, with the goal of expediting resource allocation and maximizing the Pentagon’s bang-for-buck ratio. This is a tall order, given that the Pentagon notoriously overspends and underdelivers (if not outright fails to deliver) on many of its major acquisition programs.

Speedier acquisition and budgeting processes could improve the Pentagon’s ability to respond to future threats in a timely manner. However, it would also present irresistible money-grabbing opportunities to the defense industry’s revolving door regulars: folks who bounce between high-profile jobs on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, and within top military contractors’ executive ranks and boards.

Herein lies the problem with the individuals appointed to the reform commission so far. Most of them have charted a direct path through the revolving door. The members are selected by the Secretary of Defense and members of Congress.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appointed Peter Levine. Levine is currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a group that only works for the U.S. government. Formerly, he served as deputy chief management officer and acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon. Levine also spent time on Capitol Hill, having worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee in several different capacities, including as staff director.

Herein lies the problem with the individuals appointed to the reform commission so far. Most of them have charted a direct path through the revolving door.

Lisa Disbrow is the Defense Secretary’s other pick. She is on the board of directors of Mercury Systems, a defense electronics manufacturer that depends heavily on U.S. and international defense contracts. She is also a former Pentagon official, having served as under secretary of the Air Force.

Arun Seraphin was chosen by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Seraphin is a former Capitol Hill staffer and current deputy director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute, which provides research and analysis that informs technology development for the defense industrial base.

Eric Fanning, appointed by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), served as secretary of the Army under President Barack Obama. Soon after his departure from the Pentagon in 2017, he joined the Aerospace Industries Association as its president and chief executive officer. The association is the “leading advocacy organization for the aerospace and defense industry” with nearly 350 member organizations, nine of which were top 10 recipients of Pentagon contract funds in fiscal year 2019. There are also several association members with facilities in Washington state, includingBoeing, Honeywell Aerospace, Electroimpact, and Hexcel. Fanning will maintain his post at the association while advising the Pentagon on how to improve (read: accelerate) its planning and budgeting process, exactly what every defense contractor desires.

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-AL) tapped Raj Shah to serve on the commission. Shah ran the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit when it was still in its experimental phase. Now permanent, the unit is the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost, an in-house advisory group that “contracts with commercial companies to solve national security problems.” Shah currently serves as a managing partner at Shield Capital, an investment firm that focuses on dual-use technology for both commercial and defense purposes.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) selected Robert Hale. Hale is a former under secretary of defense and current senior advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm that received over $2.3 billion in contracts from the Pentagon in fiscal year 2020 alone.

Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK) chose Ellen Lord, a regular revolver. She was president and CEO of Textron Systems until 2017, when she left to become the Pentagon’s under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. Lord worked at the Pentagon for over three years, leaving in early 2021. She lost no time leveraging her Pentagon experience for the big bucks, joining four defense companies in various capacities in the six months that followed her departure from government. One of those companies, SAIC, received nearly $2.4 billion from the Pentagon in fiscal year 2020. Another, AAR Corp., received nearly $300 million in that same year. Oklahoma is home to several AAR Corp. facilities.

Jamie Morin was selected for the panel by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). He currently serves as an executive at Aerospace Corporation, a defense contractor. Morin previously served as the Pentagon’s chief of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.

House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Kay Granger (R-TX) named David Norquist. Formerly the deputy secretary of defense, Norquist lobbies for military contractors on Capitol Hill in his capacity as a senior advisor at Covington & Burling, a DC-based law firm with aerospace and defense industry practices. He also serves on the SAIC Strategic Advisory Board. It bears repeating that the company received over $2 billion from the Pentagon in fiscal year 2020, making it a top 20 recipient of Pentagon contract funding that year.

Jennifer Santos was picked by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Santos works at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a research organization and top 100 defense contractor that received over $464 million from the Pentagon in fiscal year 2020. However, her roots are also at the Pentagon. Before joining Draper, she served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy as well as a research and development investment executive for the assistant secretary of the Navy.

Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) selected Steve Cortese, a former staff director of the committee who has worked for defense contractors Lockheed Martin, DRS Technologies (now Leonardo DRS), and ATK — the last of which defense giant Northrop Grumman acquired in 2017. In January, Lockheed Martin announced that it’s manufacturing the LMXT strategic tanker aircraft in Alabama.

All 11 of the appointees mentioned so far have ties to the Pentagon or the defense industry. The following individuals may be the only exceptions on the commission so far.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) chose former Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) to serve on the panel. Now retired, Davis spent much of her congressional career on the House Armed Services Committee — the congressional committee responsible for drafting annual defense legislation.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) picked Jonathan Burks, a vice president at Walmart. Burks spent much of his career on Capitol Hill, working as national security advisor to then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). Before that, Burks was a policy advisor to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

It’s not yet clear whether all the appointees have accepted their positions, but the real issue at hand is lack of imagination on the part of lawmakers. The Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Reform would only be helpful to the Pentagon if its membership possessed diverse viewpoints. After all, Congress assigned a huge task to the commission: to “make policy and legislative recommendations to improve such [planning] process and practices in order to field the operational capabilities necessary to outpace near-peer competitors.” In other words, propose reforms to help the Pentagon navigate great power competition with agility and precision.

Lawmakers know how difficult the commission’s mandate is, which is why they codified certain requirements for members of the commission. All members must be civilians not employed by the federal government, who are “recognized experts” with relevant professional experience in at least one of the following: matters relating to the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process at the Pentagon; innovative budgeting methods of the private sector; iterative design and the acquisition process; or budget or program execution data analysis. Clearly, there is no requirement for commission members to have work experience at the Pentagon or in the defense industry. Yet, almost every individual nominated to the commission landed high-paying jobs in the defense industry they had previously engaged with while in their public service roles; returning to the Pentagon presents clear conflicts of interest.

In a room full of people with glaring conflicts of interest, it is impossible to meaningfully reform an acquisition and budgeting system in a way that benefits the troops and American taxpayers.

Further, Congress is actually violating its own mandate for diversity of opinion in advisory committees. According to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, any legislation establishing an advisory committee shall require the committee’s membership to be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.” The omission of such a provision in the annual defense legislation for fiscal year 2022, which established the commission, was probably a mistake. But surely lawmakers could have named a few budgeting experts to serve on the commission from academia, non-defense industries within the private sector, and from civil society. There are certainly plenty of budgeting wonks at research and policy organizations in DC and other areas of the country.

In a room full of people with glaring conflicts of interest, it is impossible to meaningfully reform an acquisition and budgeting system in a way that benefits the troops in the field and the American taxpayers — rather than just the defense industry. The commission’s recommendations will inform the way the Pentagon budgets for and conducts acquisition, significantly impacting the alignment of programming with strategic defense objectives. Its success hinges on diversity of thought and background, which is severely lacking among the 13 members currently selected.

With only one open spot on the commission left, the American people can expect that any recommendations the commission produces will amount to little more than an industry wish list.