Elizabeth Warren Pushes Pentagon for Higher Ethical Standards, Lower Costs

Elizabeth Warren Pushes Pentagon for Higher Ethical Standards, Lower Costs

With the ringing in of the New Year comes the arrival of the nation’s nearly $858 billion defense spending package, a $45 billion increase over President Joe Biden’s budget request that lawmakers say will advance the U.S. “strategic competition with China and Russia.”

After Congress spent a year questioning military officials and drafting the bill’s supporting elements, the annual “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which funds the Pentagon, made it through the Senate with just two weeks remaining in the 2022 congressional session. Eighty-three Senators voted in favor of the bill, while just 11 opposed it. One of those 11 was instrumental in putting the bill together: Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Warren serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for drafting the legislation. As she has in years past, Warren voted against the measure as a matter of principle. She believes the spending authorized for the military is too high when other issues like childcare and climate change remain, in her view, underfunded.

For Warren, that vote is integral to her view on what constitutes U.S. national security.

“We are stronger when we live our values,” Warren told Newsweek in an exclusive interview. “The rest of the world is more likely to align with us, to trust us in a time of danger, and to follow our lead if they know that we hold ourselves to a higher ethical standard.”

“Security is a whole lot more than just counting off how many missiles the Army has,” she explained. “It’s about working with others to try to lift all of us. When other nations trust us to follow our moral guidance, then we are more likely to make the world a safer place — and that’s good for every single American.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is photographed at the U.S. Capitol.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty
Competing PrioritiesThroughout the defense budget review process, Warren worked to get the military to address other priorities.

“Climate change is a huge threat to our security,” Warren told Newsweek. “I pressed hard to get the military on the side of a solution rather than continuing to contribute to the problem.”

One of Warren’s key achievements in this year’s NDAA was a provision establishing that the Department of Defense (DOD) transition its non-tactical vehicles to electric or zero-emission vehicles by 2035. The Pentagon must also account for the electric load of some of its electrical vehicle charging infrastructure when planning future construction projects.

Warren’s work in distinguishing the U.S. from its top adversaries extends well beyond her climate provisions. The 2023 defense bill allocates $25 million toward implementing the DOD’s Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Plan, which aims to protect civilians from harm during military operations. It will also fund the creation of a Center of Excellence to serve as the hub and facilitator for analysis and training to prevent civilian harm.

Through the passage of this provision, Warren aims to bolster the moral authority of America’s military, further legitimizing the work of its service members. She hopes that a more values-driven military can help the U.S. improve its recruitment and retention efforts, an ongoing challenge for the Pentagon.

To help draw in the next generation of service members, Warren introduced a provision, which was included in the defense bill, that ensures oversight of military housing conditions, a move to counter the “rat-infested, covered with mold” housing she said some service members have encountered.

A longtime Warren effort toward improving recruitment and retention also succeeded this year. In October, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin authorized the renaming of military bases that bear the names of Confederate soldiers.

“Living our values is about treating all human beings with dignity and respect,” Warren told Newsweek. “I dug in on military housing as part of that, but renaming Confederate bases was also a huge part of ensuring that today’s military honors each of our service members and treats no one like a second-class citizen.”

Warren has pressed Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, to refrain from becoming lobbyists after their government service.
Greg Nash/Bloomberg/Getty
Gaining a Technological EdgeMaking the military a more comfortable workplace for people from diverse backgrounds stands central to the challenges Warren expects the country to face in a future where technology and cyberspace are expected to become an increasingly important part of how the military operates. Both China and Russia continue to develop military cyber forces. U.S. industries have already fallen victim to cyberattacks from suspected Russian hacking groups, including the 2021 attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which disrupted fuel transmission across the East Coast, and the 2020 cyberattack on SolarWinds, which exposed government data.

To better prepare the Pentagon against such potential attacks in the future, Warren says the department must help young people reimagine what a military career can mean to better attract “the next generation of computer programmers and AI specialists.” She adds that it also means investing in future research and development in order to keep the U.S. technologically ahead of its adversaries.

Warren cites the $2 million in funding she secured in the 2023 NDAA for the MIT Lincoln Lab’s superconducting microelectronics program as an example.

Reining in CostsTo carry out that work effectively and strengthen America’s position moving forward, Warren returns to the very concern that has led her to vote “no” on the NDAA so many years in the row: its cost.

While she believes the country must invest in an “effective fighting force in the field,” she thinks the U.S. can make better use of some of the money it spends on national security by reexamining the relationship between the federal government and defense contractors.

“I’ve been fighting hard to put a stop to the price gouging,” Warren told Newsweek. “American taxpayers are paying far more than they should for the equipment and services that the DOD purchases.”

The Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, on November 29, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
In 2017, Warren sent a letter to the DOD Inspector General asking the body to investigate Ohio-based aerospace company TransDigm for using “tactics to avoid sharing cost information with the government for parts.” A 2019 Pentagon review found that TransDigm had realized profits from DOD contracts at margins ranging from 17 to 4,451 percent. This exceeded the profit percentages of 15 percent or below that the DOD considers “reasonable.”

A subsequent 2021 report again found that TransDigm earned excess profit of at least $20.8 million on DOD contracts. TransDigm is not the only contractor to stand as the focus of such DOD reports. In 2013, the department found that “Boeing charged the Army about $13 million (131.5 percent) more than the fair and reasonable prices” for parts.

In an attempt to address this issue, Warren introduced the Stop Price Gouging the Military Act, which enhances the Pentagon’s authority to “oversee whether contract prices are fair and reasonable” by providing the department with the information necessary to prevent actions like those carried out by TransDigm. The legislation’s intent was reflected in the 2023 NDAA.

Warren has also worked in committee hearings to secure commitments from top Pentagon officials that they would not carry out private sector lobbying work immediately following their time serving within the Pentagon.  » …
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