By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow December 10, 2014
“The nation today needs men who think in terms of service to their country and not in terms of their country’s debt to them,” Gen. Omar Bradley observed in 1948. The good news is that some of those who have served our country in uniform are answering our country’s call to serve yet again—in Congress.
In fact, the number of veterans serving in the Senate will increase when the new Congress is sworn in next month. With a handful of races still pending, “Between 11 and 14 newly-elected veterans will join the 114th House of Representatives, and four will join the Senate,” according to the Veterans Campaign, a non-partisan nonprofit that trains veterans interested in running for public office.
All told, there will be between 81 and 84 veterans in the House and 21 in the Senate, with veterans of Iraq and/or Afghanistan accounting for one-quarter of the freshman class. Until this year, the Veterans Campaign notes, “The number of veterans in the Senate had decreased in every election since 1982.” Of note on the Senate side: Joni Ernst of Iowa—who led supply convoys from Kuwait into Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and commanded an Army National Guard battalion—will be the first female veteran in the U.S. Senate. Senator-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas—who left law school after the 9/11 attacks to serve in the United States Army—completed combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even so, the number of veterans with major-party nominations was 20 fewer in the 2014 cycle than in the 2012 cycle—“the largest decline in recent history,” according to the Veterans Campaign. As Military Times reports, “Only 183 of the 865 major-party candidates up for election to Congress this year boast military experience. It’s the first time in recent memory that fewer than 200 veterans were on the campaign trail in the congressional races.”
That brings us to the bad news: The number of veterans serving in Congress has fallen rapidly and steadily in recent years.
Not surprisingly, with 16 million Americans serving in uniform during World War II, the number of veterans serving in Congress grew in the postwar period. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, the number of veterans in the House peaked in 1967 (when veterans accounted for 75.2 percent of the body) and in the Senate in 1975 (when veterans comprised 80 percent of the upper chamber).
But CRS notes that the total number of veterans serving has declined to just 19.6 percent in the House and 18.1 percent in the Senate for the current Congressional session, which ends in January. In fact, the number of veterans in Congress is sliding toward 100; it hasn’t dipped below the century mark since the 1950s, when World War II veterans began serving in Congress.
Think of it this way: Less than one-fifth of those who will decide whether or not to give the president after-the-fact authorization for military action in Iraq and Syria have military experience.
Interestingly, the nexus between military service and legislative service is not a post-World War II aberration. “For 30 years after the Civil War,” as military historian Victor Davis Hanson observes, “almost no American could get elected to office without prior Union or Confederate Civil War service.” Hanson adds that “being a World War II veteran was virtually mandatory for any congressional leader until about 1970.”
Even so, a decline in the percentage of veterans serving in Congress was unavoidable. After all, as the share of veterans in the overall population fell from 13.8 percent in 1970 to less than 7 percent today, the share of veterans in Congress was bound to fall as well.
But could we be entering a danger zone where our deliberative bodies lack a critical mass of veterans needed to steer defense and security decisions in a prudent direction?
This isn’t to suggest that military service should be a prerequisite for congressional service. There are exceptional people who create exceptions to the rule. Long before he served as president, for instance, John Adams proved himself a wise and able legislator in war and peace, though he never served in the military.
Even so, it seems sensible for veterans to make up a larger percentage of Congress than the overall population—for veterans to be over-represented in Congress. Serving in Congress, after all, is not your run-of-the-mill job. Deciding how much to spend on the national defense, when, where and whether to go to war, and who should be entrusted with the keys to the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, State Department and Department of Homeland Security would be aided by military experience.
But this is about more than judgment and experience. It’s also about respect for Congress and what it does. Since no institution is more respected by Americans than the U.S. military, and few are less respected than Congress, the institution of Congress could benefit from a larger infusion of veterans. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 74 percent of Americans have high confidence in the military, while less than 10 percent express confidence in Congress. (Related, only 30 percent of Americans express confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency, 22 percent in newspapers and 18 percent in TV news.)
Perhaps one reason that respect for Congress has plummeted in recent years is related to the declining number of veterans serving there.
Congress needs more veterans to bring their real-world experience and sense of purpose to the policymaking process. Fair or not, the perception is that members of Congress are ensnared by special interests and focused on little else than amassing power and using it to get re-elected. In fact, according to polls conducted by CBS and The New York Times, 85 percent of respondents say Congress is more interested in special interests than in the American people. Those who have served in uniform have shown a willingness—a readiness—to put their nation and their unit ahea
d of themselves. As historian John Keegan observed, the world of the warrior “exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it.” Thus, veterans are motivated by different values—honor, duty, service—than many of those they defend and protect.
Amid mounting debt and spiraling spending at home, new and old threats abroad, and more than a decade of war, the American people need Congress to make lots of tough decisions in the years ahead. Today’s cohort of veterans is equipped to do that.
Veterans aren’t perfect, of course, and they won’t be able to fix everything. But Washington would definitely benefit from more contact with those “who think in terms of service to their country and not in terms of their country’s debt to them.”