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Commentary: Congress faces 'defense brain drain'

by on November 15, 2013 10:20 AM

Congress is facing a worrisome deficit of military expertise in its ranks. The longstanding cadre of legislative and military veterans who ran the congressional armed services committees are dying off or retiring, leaving their places to be filled by legislators with little or no military experience.

In December, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the one-armed Medal of Honor winner who chaired both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, died. Last month, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., the chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, also died.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the last World War II veteran in Congress, died as well.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he will not seek re-election next year. The departures are being called “a defense brain drain.”

Their replacements represent “a startling and rapid descent of knowledge by sitting members of Congress,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who must deal with a full-time military that places a premium on professional training.

Once having served in the military was almost a prerequisite for election to Congress, but the current Congress, the 113th, has only 106 veterans among its 535 House and Senate members. According to figures cited by The New York Times, the Senate will have 18 veterans, down from a peak of 81 in 1977, and the House will have 88 veterans, down from a high of 347 that same year.

The current collective lack of experience is perhaps best represented by the lawmakers’ inability to deal with the problems bedeviling the military caused by the sequester, the flat, across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The lawmakers taking over from the World War II and Vietnam generations will soon be tested when it comes time to pay for the U.S. relief expedition to the typhoon-devastated Philippines. With a carrier fleet and two amphibious warships, it won’t be cheap.

“You are not going to see just Marines and a few planes and some helicopters. You will see the entire Pacific Command respond to this crisis,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, the Marine officer in charge of the U.S. relief effort.



Dale McFeatters' column, "Just Dessert," is distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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