By Rick Maze, Staff writer
At a time when Congress is facing big questions that will affect military careers, the percentage of lawmakers who served in uniform has increased slightly and remains higher than the general population.
About 21 percent of House lawmakers and 29 percent of senators previously served in the military, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Veterans make up only 3.3 percent of the adult population of the U.S., the report says.
Veteran representation on Capitol Hill had been steadily declining since the early 1970s, largely a result of the World War II generation of lawmakers leaving Congress. In the 92nd Congress, which spanned 1971 and 1972, 72 percent of House lawmakers and 78 percent of senators had military service. In the 111th Congress, which spanned 2009 and 2010, the number of veterans fell to 18 percent in the House and 28 percent in the Senate.
According to the nonprofit and nonpartisan Veterans Campaign, almost 200 veterans challenged incumbents or ran for open seats in the 112th Congress.
The armed services and veterans' affairs committees in the House and Senate are headed today by people who never served in the military, although subcommittees responsible for military personnel issues are headed by veterans. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Naval Academy graduate and Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel panel and is the chief sponsor of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which dramatically improved veterans' education benefits for those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan era.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a retired Army National Guard colonel whose four sons also have served in the military, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel. He has been one of the strongest opponents of Pentagon plans to cut military retired pay, and he also opposes efforts to dramatically increase out-of-pocket health care costs for retirees and their families.
Rick Jones of the National Association for Uniformed Services, a group that represents the interests of active-duty members, reservists and retirees, said having veterans in Congress helps in debates about benefits, such as when Webb talks about growing up in a military family that believed lifelong military health care was a promise, or when Wilson talks about his son's military service.
"You don't have to be a veteran, of course. We try to educate folks about the extent of sacrifice of being in the military, but it helps to have someone in Congress who already understands it," Jones said.
Seth Lynn, executive director of the Veterans Campaign, said he expects more than 100 veterans to be running for the House of Representatives this fall, but he cautioned that simply being a veteran isn't enough to win.
"These days, you need to have done something other than served in the military, some private-sector experience to draw on," Lynn said. "In this election, the big thing veterans are going to have to do is demonstrate their bona fides on the economy. They cannot run and win simply on Iraq or Afghanistan."