Should a Revolving Door Ban Apply to Defense Contractors?

The Lobbying Ban

One of the first things President Obama did upon taking office in January of 2009 was to sign an executive order restricting the ability of lobbyists to become government officials and vice versa.  Yet, as some some pretty decent-seeming lobby groups were quick to point out, the rules were far from perfect.  Many lobbyists simply rebranded themselves to avoid the rules.  More importantly, the rules never touched the large number of federal employees who continue to walk through a revolving door between government, civilian, and contractor roles.

It’s Not Just About Blackwater

Recent controversy has developed surrounding the use of private contractors such as Blackwater (which has since changed its name to Xe Services) for security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The deaths of 17 Iraqis in 2007 raised questions about chains of command, rules of engagement, and whether the use of contractors was truly cost effective, seeing as how so many Blackwater employees were ex-military, pulled into the private sector by lures of better pay and equipment.

Blake Hall has previously discussed many of these issues here on this blog. These questions, although poignantly spotlighted in combat operations, are just as relevant in peacetime.  Roughly 40 percent of the DoD workforce is currently comprised of contractors.  If that number seems high, keep in mind that it is actually higher; the figure doesn’t account for the support, administration, and internal R&D staff that work at contracting companies, all of whom are paid for using government money.

Why We Have Contractors

There are of course many benefits to using private contractors.

(1) Contractors compete.  The efficiency produced by this competition translates into lower cost for the government.

(2) Every dollar spent on a military contract helps to spur innovation in other sectors.  Technology developed for military applications can be used in the private sector to get ahead of foreign competitors.

(3) Military billets rotate every few years; contracted positions provide continuity.

(4) Private companies are free to hire expertise developed in other sectors. In the military, rank and pay are based largely on time in service.

(5) Most importantly, using contractors frees up uniformed servicemembers to train for and fight wars.

But at What Cost?

The traditional view of civil-military relations is that an intentional tension exists between government civilians and the military.  The government needs a military force that can secure the nation’s interests around the world.  It works to ensure that the military is funded and incentivized to constantly improve itself.  The military services compete for resources; this competition drives innovations in technology and doctrine.  Contractors, on the other hand, are motivated by profit and keeping jobs stable.  Contractors want their customers (the government) to buy as many units of the latest weapons system as possible and they to make sure they keep buying units for years to come.  Contractors don’t like big changes because changes mean employees lose jobs.

If the story ended here, the competing interests of civilian government, the military, and private contractors should create a situation where checks and balances would ensure the government could buy the technology it needs at a fair price.  The problem is that government decision makers with contacts from a long career at a private company will naturally be more likely to make a phone call there first.  On top of that, contractors are free to hire former members of any military service or government agency.  How does building such a wide network of contacts affect the natural competition between these organizations?

Trying to put a ban on revolving door practices similar to what Obama did with lobbyists would be impractical for a number of reason, not least of which would be the simple fact that too many people would be affected by such a rule – the shock to the system would be unbearable.  But what will happen if current practices are allowed to continue?  Historically, civil-military relations shift slowly; it can take a generation or more for new paradigms to emerge.  The growth of contractors both in number of positions and in influence is unprecedented.  The civilian-military relationship is not ready to deal with large private companies whose reach extends across traditional borders.  If legislators don’t wake up to this reality, then by an internal battle of interests may weaken our ability to prepare for war, regardless of who wins.

What should be done to prevent the revolving door effect in DoD contracting?  Or are sufficient protections already in place?  Voice your thoughts in the comments.

One thought on “Should a Revolving Door Ban Apply to Defense Contractors?

  1. […] written previously on this blog about the role of contractors.  Nowhere is that role more apparent than in defense acquisition.  The services like to believe […]

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