January 22, 2009 -- Experts and watchdogs say they cannot fathom how President Obama's choice for the Pentagon's second-in-command, currently a lobbyist for a defense giant, could be nominated under the principles of his new ethics rules.
"It appears to be a black-and-white case. I am unaware of what makes it so gray in the mind of President Obama," said Winslow T. Wheeler, a former congressional budget staffer now with the Center for Defense Information, on the president's choice of Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn to serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense. Wheeler said it would take a "gigantic loophole" to squeeze Lynn, a top executive for defense giant Raytheon who registered to lobby for the company as recently as last June, into the office.
Obama's executive order, which he signed Tuesday, would appear to ban lobbyists like Lynn from working in executive branch jobs related to the work of their former employers. Moreover, it would force appointees to recuse themselves from any business their former employers might have an interest.
"We need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely," Obama said yesterday upon signing the order.
"I think they need to re-evaluate [Lynn's appointment] after their strong stance on government openness and ethics," said Scott Amey, of the Project on Government Oversight. His group opposes Lynn's confirmation.
The criticism appears to have had an impact: while the Senate Armed Services Committee looked poised to approve Lynn's nomination, chairman Carl Levin Thursday said his panel didn't know enough yet.
"Given the President's new stricter rules requiring his appointees to recuse themselves from matters or issues on which they have lobbied, the Senate Armed Services Committee will need further information before proceeding" with Lynn's nomination, Levin said in a statement.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that "even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions," and that Lynn was "uniquely qualified. . . to serve the public interest in these critical times."
Deputy Secretary of Defense Controls $200 Billion in Spending
But that's next to impossible, several experts said. The Deputy Secretary of Defense functions as the chief operating officer for the department, making calls on roughly $200 billion in spending. Lawrence Korb, a military expert with the Center for American Progress, estimated that Raytheon, Lynn's former employer, was involved in about half of that business.
"It certainly does not bode well for his effectiveness in the job," said Korb. Lynn, who was formerly Pentagon comptroller under President Clinton, is "a good guy," Korb added. But the apparent conflicts Lynn would face as Deputy Secretary "is something they should have thought about."
Lynn's record as the Pentagon's top bookkeeper in the 1990s left some wringing their hands, however. According to Winslow Wheeler, Lynn's budget documents contained "Olympian linguistic gymnastics" that called decreases increases and played games with numbers that left Wheeler, a congressional budget analyst for decades, dumbfounded. Contacted Thursday, Wheeler still expressed outrage at what he called "the really insane, ludicrous gimmicks he was pushing."
Lynn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.