Nothing in Clinton’s selection of Cabinet members illustrates so well his seesaw personality than the choice of Cong. Les Aspin as the Secretary of Defense. Clinton who campaigned as an “outsider” to bring fresh ideas and fresh people to Washington adds yet another “insider” to his growing Cabinet of “insiders.”
Aspin, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is the “King Kong” of what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” Starting out in Congress some twenty years ago, Aspin took his PhD in economics and his experience as a former Pentagon analyst to soaring heights as the leading Congressional watchdog of the Defense Department. So frequent and so incisive were his reports and press statements that once I called and urged him to put the collection together in a book. Alas, how he has changed! Leapfrogging the seniority system to become Chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 1985, Aspin has learned to “get along by going along.” His Committee with all its ample investigative resources disturbed the military-industrial complex less than lone Congressman Aspin did working out of his office with one staff assistant in his early years.
By 1987, Aspin became a leader in institutionalizing a kind of Congressional corruption reeking of conflicting interests and political entrenchment. He started the “Aspin Institute” – a non-profit, tax-exempt entity for which he is the unpaid chairman. The Institute, based in Racine, Wisconsin, works to steer Pentagon contracts to Wisconsin companies. Funding for the Institute’s $400,000 a year budget comes from Pentagon tax dollars and donations by Wisconsin companies.
Contracts flow to the state and the grateful companies see to it that their Political Action Committees and company officials donate ample sums to Chairman Aspin’s campaign kitty.
Not even former chairman, Mendel Rivers, was cunning enough to conceive this approach to influence-peddling. But, Aspin’s ingenuity has outstripped his sense of what constitutes appropriate behavior for his powerful office.
As Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he should have maximum independence from any appearance or reality of being obligated to the Defense Department and its contractors that he is overseeing. He should be militantly arms length, accepting no favors from nor exerting any self-interested pressure on the Pentagon.
Quite the opposite has been the case. Flying around the country and the world on military jets and assorted high flying Pentagon hospitality has become an Aspin life style. While occasionally tweaking the Pentagon on a few of their many weapons systems, Aspin really puts his foot down when it comes’ to demanding certain weapons contracts that favor Wisconsin companies.
For example, he forced the Pentagon to buy 60 advanced M-1 tanks and upgrade 480 older tanks, even though the Pentagon believed they were unnecessary. The cost totalled $379 million and benefitted, among other firms, the Scot Forge Co. whose marketing director, Sharon Sarton, is a regular companion of Aspin’s.
In 1988, Aspin pushed through a Pentagon contract against its wishes to help Oshkosh Truck company. Cost: over $500 million.
Scot Forge typifies the routine. For the past five years, the company has sent a tax-deductible contribution to Aspin’s Institute, while its employees have sent several thousand dollars to Aspin’s campaign treasury. In recent years there has been a mighty surge in such political contributions by Wisconsin businessmen who benefit from the Aspin’s Institute’s influence with the Pentagon. Whereupon Aspin cites the Institute’s work in his campaign fundraising pamphlets and on the stump.
Of course, all this is justified as helping the Pentagon “interface with its contract community” and generally speaking the Pentagon brass is happy to help fund such interfaces because points are scored with members of Congress that way. Many a legislator has beamed while releasing an announcement to his or her district regarding a new Pentagon contract.
And what about the contributions from these business executives to Aspin’s campaign? Just coincidental? Or very unethical and damaging to the very principle of separation of powers.
So seamy is the Washington scene that Aspin can claim all this to be legal. So jaded is the Washington scene that the principal exposes and outrage, thus far, over the Aspin Institute triangle have come from Wisconsin newspapers, not the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Now Aspin is on his way to head the Pentagon for Bill Clinton — the preelection candidate who refused to address a hotel ballroom filled with national citizen group leaders in Washington, at my and others’ invitation, because, as his spokesman put it: “He is campaigning as an outsider and does not want to go to an event in Washington, D.C.”