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Gates: Ethics is a Barrier to Advancement at the Pentagon

Lara Jakes buries the lead in her story about all the money ex-Raytheon lobbyist Bill Lynn will make if he sells his company stock to take the No. 2 spot at the Pentagon:

Testifying before the Senate panel Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said stringent ethics rules are a major reason it is difficult to fill top posts at the Pentagon.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Ironically, Gates was testifying in support of Lynn’s confirmation. In his attempt to defend his colleague, Gates inadvertently indicted his department and the entire defense industry as a morass of crony capitalism.

Let’s assume that ethics regulations are a significant obstacle to obtaining top talent at the Pentagon. Let’s assume it’s hard to find senior public servants who haven’t already cashed in on their expertise in the private sector. What does that say about the system?

The Lynn affair is another illustration of the real-world consequences of an unchecked revolving door and the institutions that treat this kind of back-and-forth between government and industry as the norm.

Here is a guy who is probably highly qualified, but who will take office under a cloud. His efficacy may suffer as a result. In a lot of people’s minds, he’s always going to be the lobbyist from Raytheon. That may not be fair to him, and it’s certainly not fair to the institution he serves.

Tougher institutional controls on the revolving door, such as those Obama tried to impose with his executive order, are part of the solution. Sustained public pressure is also important. It’s harder for lobbyists to slip quietly back into government now that Jack Abramoff is a household name.

If journalists and watchdog groups keep up the pressure, politically ambitious people will eventually learn that a lobbying background can be a long-term liability, and not just an easy way to make a quick buck.

One thing is clear,* ad hoc* ethics waivers like the one Obama gave to Lynn, will only exacerbate the problem. Rules can slow the revolving door, but the problem won’t go away until decision-makers impose real career consequences for candidates who rack up conflicts of interest.

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