Congress may put the brakes on Pentagon's revolving door to private defense jobs

George Sawyer was not unemployed for long. An assistant secretary of the Navy, Mr. Sawyer spent two years overseeing warship construction, including the cost-overrun-plagued Trident submarine program at General Dynamics Corporation. When he left the government in June of 1983, he walked right into a new job -- executive vice-president of General Dynamics.

Sawyer's shuffle was a bit hastier than most, but not unusual. The ``revolving door'' leading from Pentagon employment to the private sector is spinning faster and faster these days.

This trend, combined with recent disclosures about items like corporate dog-boarding bills charged to the Pentagon is causing Congress to take a new look at possible curbs on the jobs federal employees can hold after they leave the government.

``There is a perception that the `revolving door' is not being adequately policed,'' says Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana, chairman of the subcommittee on Defense Acquisition Policy.

As of last year, corporations with large military contracts employed 2,100 people who had recently worked for the Defense Department, according to congressional records. That's 63 percent more former DOD employees than these companies employed in 1979.

Of course, military officers and Defense Department civilians aren't the only government workers who cash in on their experience and go to work for industries they once regulated. Treasury Department officials and members of the congressional Ways and Means Committees, for instance, often become tax lobbyists.

But the Pentagon buys so many things (defense items account for 80 percent of US government procurement) that its revolving door presents an open opportunity for real and apparent conflicts of interest, critics say.

Temptation, they say, is at the heart of the issue: temptation for defense officials to go easy on military contractors, because they know one day the contractors may be their employers. The result is weapons whose unreliability is exceeded only by their cost overruns, according to some members of Congress.

Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin cites the case of the Divad antiaircraft gun, a new weapon whose spectacular problems have caused it to be put on hold by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Companies developing Divad hired three former Army lieutenant generals who had been involved with the gun while in the service, Senator Proxmire notes.

Defense contractors beg to differ, saying they hire tough officials, and not the Pentagon's soft touches.

``We want people who have represented the government in the strongest fashion,'' said Thomas Pownell, chairman of Martin Marietta Corporation, before a recent Senate hearing. ``These are talented people. They're not desperate for jobs.''

There is also the question of the revolving door's effect on the morale of those left behind. The Project on Military Procurement, a Pentagon watchdog group, recently released a 1982 government report on the problems of contractor hiring at the Air Force Contract Management Division in Albuquerque, N.M.

``Employees openly discuss what the former employee has done over the past few years for the contractor in order to obtain the new job, and wonder why they themselves should be so ethical,'' the report says.

A number of laws now on the books are intended to prevent abuses of the revolving door. For example, high federal employees are proscribed from quitting, then turning around and selling to the government private wares that pertain to the work they did while in federal service.

It is not, however, illegal for them simply to work in the background. Several bills now pending before Congress would change this situation. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California has introduced legislation that would force federal employees to wait five years after leaving the government before going to work for companies whose products or services they had been involved with buying while in US employ. Proxmire has introduced a somewhat less stringent measure, which includes a two-year waiting period.

Senator Quayle, chairman of the newly established defense acquisition policy subcommittee, says he plans to take a serious look at the revolving door.

The issue has been raised in Congress before, but congressional sources say that this year there is a let's-be-tough-on-the-Pentagon mood among members that means legislation may pass.

The Defense Department itself is not wild about the idea, but it is not complaining loudly, either. At a hearing before Quayle's subcommittee Tuesday, Deputy Defense Secretary William Taft IV claimed current law adequately protects against actual abuse of the revolving door, but said the possibility of an appearance of conflict of interest does exist.

Current law ``is limited to representational activity, not overall employment. That is the area you might want to expand,'' Mr. Taft said.

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