Fewer veterans in Congress

Less than a quarter of U.S. lawmakers have a military background. That rankles critics who say legislators who vote on war matters lack the insight that such a background would afford them.

In Focus -- National Security

October 04, 2007|By Susan Kuczka | Susan Kuczka,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- As the debate over the Iraq war rages in Congress, the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Chris Carney, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is where fellow lawmakers frequently gather to seek free military advice.

"I think it's because it's somewhat of an anomaly to have a congressman here with a counterterrorism background," said Carney, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve who serves his monthly weekend rotation at the Pentagon's war room.

Currently, less than a quarter of the members of Congress have a military background - the lowest ratio since World War II, according to the Congressional Research Service. That fact rankles some critics who argue that most lawmakers who vote to fund wars and send troops lack combat experience.

Aside from Carney, one other congressman does active reserve duty while serving on Capitol Hill. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican, is an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve who also fulfills his duty in the Pentagon's war room.

"It's a great reality check for me, because this allows me to sort of be very in touch with the 2 million Americans who are in uniform," Kirk said. "Sometimes you can sense a real disconnect between Americans who wear the uniform and everybody else."

The disconnect can also be evident on Capitol Hill.

While military service used to be widely viewed as a prerequisite for running for Congress, the number of elected officials with a military background has steadily declined since the draft ended after the Vietnam War. Currently, 129 members of the 110th Congress have served in the military, including in the reserves or National Guard. Only one - Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican - is female.

In modern days, Congress hit a high for military veterans in the mid-1970s when nearly 80 percent of federal lawmakers had a military background. From 1951 to 1992, more than half the members of Congress had military experience, congressional records show.

With the end of the draft and the downsizing of the nation's military heading into the 21st century, the pool of congressional candidates with military experience shrank as well. Today's military force represents a fraction - less than 1 percent - of the nation's population.

"After the end of the Cold War, we declared a `peace dividend' and shrunk the size of our military 40 percent," said Steven P. Strobridge, director of government and relations for the Military Officers Association of America. "That decision's being questioned now, when you see how much we're overusing our people. But I think people are realizing now that it wasn't just the Soviet Union we were on guard against."

The shrinking pool of congressional members with military backgrounds has proved to be a strain on organizations representing veterans and military personnel.

"You feel like you're in `Military 101' when they don't even know the difference between the most basic things, like the difference between a brigade and a division," said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, a group formed to support the election of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It makes it real difficult because they're more susceptible to political spin."

The Pentagon also has taken notice. With the number of veterans in Congress dwindling over the past three decades, the Defense Department recently conducted a major overhaul of its legislative affairs office at the Pentagon - the division's first restructuring in nearly two decades.

The makeover included orders to beef up staff of both military and civilian workers at the Pentagon to more aggressively communicate the Pentagon's agenda and respond to requests for information from members of Congress while simultaneously learning how to climb the ropes of the legislative branch of government, officials said.

Only six of the 60 new members elected to Congress last year - including Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a Democrat and former secretary of the Navy - had military experience. Having a military background did not automatically translate into victory at the polls, according to the Military Officers Association of America. Of the six veterans who served in Iraq and ran for Congress in 2006, only Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was elected; he served two tours in Iraq.

Heading into 2008, Democratic Party officials are trying to recruit candidates with military backgrounds, especially in hotly contested races in California, Florida, Michigan, New York and Ohio, said Doug Thornell, national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"We think [having a military background] helps both on the campaign trail as well as when you become a member of Congress," he said.

Whether greater consensus would develop in Congress on tough military issues if more veterans held office is debatable. Even the handful of members with children or other relatives now serving in the military - such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat - have differed on the best course of action in the current campaign, even when the safety of loved ones is at the top of their agenda.

Susan Kuczka writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Thinning ranks

Military service used to be widely viewed as a prerequisite for running for Congress. But today, the percentage of U.S. senators and representatives with military backgrounds is the lowest since World War II.

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