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November 23, 2014

Veteran Voices, Influence Fade on the Hill

vets002 042908 445x296 Veteran Voices, Influence Fade on the Hill

None of the veterans in this 2008 photo are currently serving in Congress, an illustration of the dwindling numbers of military members on the Hill. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s among the more curious recent coincidences in Congress. The veterans’ health care scandal reached a climax, and galvanized unusually bipartisan outrage — just as the dwindling roster of veterans slips below a symbolic threshold.

The defeat of 91-year-old Rep. Ralph M. Hall in the Texas Republican primary last week means there won’t be any veterans of World War II at the Capitol come January. He was among the nearly 500 members from the “greatest generation” who served both during the war and in Congress.

Hall’s impending departure underscores how the decline in members with military experience has been accelerating for three decades, creating ample anxiety for veterans organizations. As their roster of virtually guaranteed Hill allies has dwindled — and splintered among lawmakers who served in half a dozen conflicts — these groups have grown increasingly concerned that Congress is losing its ardor for forcefully addressing veterans’ concerns.

Their fears have grown as budget constraints have intensified and because the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have gained reputations as legislative backwaters — not only beset by rapid turnover, from the top seats on down, but also now infused with the partisanship that had for so long skirted these committees.

The worries will be tested anew this summer, no matter who is nominated to run the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to replace Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week. Revelations about astonishingly long waiting times for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and efforts by officials to cover up the problem, is applying considerable pressure on both parties to compromise on legislation smoothing delivery of care to the 6.5 million veterans who use the system annually.

Senate Democrats on Sunday unveiled a revived and expanded version of their comprehensive VA health care bill, which was blocked by a GOP filibuster in February. It calls for overhauling the VA appointment scheduling computer system, hiring more medical personnel, making it easier to fire senior department officials and creating 27 new veterans clinics. Implementation would cost at least $18 billion during the next five years.

When the House returns next week, it will begin moving legislation embodying the GOP’s big idea on the subject, which is to make the VA embrace more privatization. The bill would permit any veteran who has waited more than a month for an appointment at a department facility to get care from a private hospital or doctor, with the VA providing vouchers for footing the bill.

Both measures look likely to move through the Veterans’ Affairs committees, creating rare moments in the national spotlight for a pair of panels that are more often regarded as legislative afterthoughts by leadership and as way stations by the rank and file.

In the past decade, the chairmanship of the Senate panel has changed five times and the House committee gavel has been passed along four times. Six of the 14 seats on the Senate committee have changed hands over the last four years. Turnover on the House side has been even more dramatic: Nine of today’s 14 Republicans, and eight of the 11 Democrats, are in their first or second terms. That’s 17 of 25 lawmakers who are relatively new to Congress. The general rule has been that members are willing to bide their time on the VA panels only until their bids come through for more powerful or prestigious committee posts.

In the winter, Republicans blocked the Senate bill to protest both its cost and the restrictions imposed on what amendments they could offer. Now, with the wait time scandal on the front pages, Democrats are betting a sufficient number of Republicans will reverse course.

GOP interest in more private care, and the thwarting of the Senate bill, have caused friction between veterans lobbying groups and the top Republican on the Senate panel, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina. (Another sign of the high turnover on the panels is that Burr rose to be ranking member after just four years as a senator.)

The rift burst open over Memorial Day weekend, when Burr offered a blanket condemnation of veterans organizations, saying they are “more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.” Many of the groups lambasted him right back, with several of Burr’s critics suggesting he had no feel for the real concerns of people who wore a uniform because he is not among them.

Sticking by that correlation could prove problematic for the veterans groups. Military service is on the resumes of only eight of the 39 lawmakers now serving on either of the VA panels — and none of them is a chairman or ranking member.

Those numbers are a precise reflection of the entire 113th Congress. Just 19 percent of the current membership served in the military (86 lawmakers in the House and 18 in the Senate). That percentage peaked at 77 percent (347 in the House and 65 in the Senate) in 1977, when members of the World War II generation were in their late 40s and early 50s. With those people aging and the era of an all-volunteer armed forces set in place, the share of veterans has been shrinking since — dropping below half of lawmakers in the middle 1990s and falling below one-quarter a decade ago.

According to data compiled by CQ Roll Call, nearly one-third of the veterans now on the Hill served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Only a dozen House members and one senator, recently appointed Democrat John Walsh of Montana, saw combat.

Speaker John A. Boehner is the only member of the leadership with any military service. He enlisted right after graduating from high school in Ohio in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, but was honorably discharged after eight weeks in the Navy because of a back problem.

The 2012 election, meanwhile, was the first presidential contest since 1944 when neither major party nominee was a veteran.

Hall, first elected in 1980, will now join Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, who’s retiring, in turning out the lights on the Hill’s World War II generation in December. (The Senate’s final veteran of that conflict, Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, died last year.)

The first of their ilk arrived in 1944, before the war was even over. That’s when Democrat George Andrews won an Alabama House seat while on active duty in the Navy, and Republican William Jenner was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy fresh from his discharge as a captain in the Army Air Corps.

Jenner retired in 1958, while Andrews stayed until 1970. But neither of them ever served on a committee that handled veterans policy. In their day, there just weren’t enough seats to go around.

  • pitch1934

    The pols have no problem sending our men and women to die, hey just have a problem when it comes to taking care of the damaged ones later.

  • Jazzy

    My state benefits ran out on January 4th 2014. I’ve been waiting for them to renew EUC, everyday its some new line of bull shot. In the 5 months of bull shot I’ve sold everything I owned, and this month I don’t have money for rent, car, food.

    I was really counting on the government making things right before the extension expired. Obama looks like such a fool, every time I see his picture or hear him talk, I think to myself, how can this guy sit here and ignore problems like EUC. Boehner, I finally got the point were I just pity the fool, he looks like his soul was stolen long ago.

    So as a single dad raising a 13 year old girl I can honestly say that when I was looking hard -to find a job, put food on the table, keep a positive outlook, that my government was playing games with my family directly. We have been affected. We are affected. We are going to the Presbyterian church in the nice part of town to get republican donation money.

  • Wally

    Don’t think this statement is correct: “According to data compiled by CQ Roll Call, nearly one-third of the veterans now on the Hill served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Only one, recently appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, saw combat.”
    I know Congressman Chris Gibson in NY 19 was an Army Ranger Colonel with the 82nd Airborne who had 4 combat tours in Iraq, and earned 4 Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He definitely saw a lot of combat.

  • YONATAN C

    BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES HAVE FAILED THE POOR AND UNEMPLOYED MISERABLY. THEY HAVE INTENTIONALLY DELAYED AND POSTPONED THE UNEMPLOYMENT EXTENSION VOTE IN THE SENATE, UNTIL IT’S BECOME TOO LATE TO PASS. WHILE MILLIONS OF FAMILIES CONTINUE FACING EVICTION, HOME FORECLOSURES, BANKRUPTCY, AND HOMELESSNESS, THE TWO PARTIES HAVE WALKED AWAY FROM THE CRISIS. THEIR LACK OF COMPASSION AND COMMON DECENCY IS APPALLING. HOW CAN 2.6 MILLION UNEMPLOYED, AND FINANCIALLY RUINED PEOPLE, BE LEFT HUNG OUT TO DRY IN THE WIND WITHOUT SUPPORT? WE EVEN RECENTLY HELPED THE UKRAINE WITH BILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN AID. WHAT ABOUT THESE FAMILIES HERE?

  • Poe Gromms

    I think we can all agree that Hussein Obama is a delusional menace.

  • John Smith

    In a related YouTube video, we find another example of Hussein Obama’s violent racialist rhetoric: http://youtu.be/g_YbX9QFVt8?t=28s

  • Dopple Gang

    Even more lies from Obama: http://youtu.be/_o65vMUk5so

  • Yonatan YONATAN

    The Republicans & Democrats, have both Failed, the More Than 2.6 Million Unemployed Families, still Without an Extension Of Unemployment Benefits, since Late Last December. For the past Five And A Half Months, these families have had to face Evictions, Home foreclosures, Bankruptcy, and Homelessness, while these two political parties played “Party Politics” in the senate, Delaying and Postponing the vote. The Republicans in particular, have held the Extension Bill “Hostage” in the senate, never truly planning on passing the bill. When Billions of Tax Payer Dollars have been Approved for the Ukraine, and More spent on Military aid for Europe, the poor & Unemployed in this country are left alone to struggle and suffer economically. We have Representatives that are No Longer Representing the interests of the average American, but are answering to Corporate America and Special Interest Groups instead. These career politicians need be voted out of office in the coming election.

  • Yonatan YONATAN

    THE HILL AND THE SENATE HAS PROVEN THAT THEY NO LONGER CARE ABOUT THE VETERANS, THE POOR, AND UNEMPLOYED.THE REPUBLICANS & DEMOCRATIC PARTIES, HAVE FAILED THE MORE THAN 2.6 MILLION UNEMPLOYED AMERICANS WHO ARE STILL OUT OF WORK, WITHOUT AN EXTENSION OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS, SINCE LATE LAST DECEMBER. THESE ARE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO WORK, BUT HAVE NOT FOUND EMPLOYMENT . DUE TO MANY FACTORS, SUCH AS “AGE” AND POOR ECONOMY, EMPLOYMENT FOR THESE WORKERS ARE NOT AVAILABLE. REGARDLESS OF WHAT THE POLLS SAY, THE ECONOMY HAS NOT IMPROVED, AND MILLIONS OF WORKERS ARE STILL WITHOUT JOBS. SINCE LAST DECEMBER, THE REPUBLICANS HAVE HELD THE EXTENSION BILL “HOSTAGE” IN THE SENATE, FOR POLITICAL LEVERAGE AND PARTY AGENDA. MEANWHILE, THESE MILLIONS OF FAMILIES, HAVE FACED EVICTION, HOME FORECLOSURES, BANKRUPTCY, AND HOMELESSNESS, WHILE THE POLITICIANS CONTINUE PLAYING PARTY POLITICS. THE SENATE NEEDS TO PASS THE EXTENSION BILL TO HELP THESE FAMILIES TO FINANCIALLY RECOVER ONCE AGAIN. THESE FAMILIES ARE FACING FINANCIAL RUIN BECAUSE OF THE SIX MONTH DELAY IN BENEFITS.

  • James Parshall Sr.

    Senator Murray & Catwell both help the department on veterans affairs to cover up felony crimes to include death threats and sexual misconduct so they are just has guilty of what the department of veterans are doing they want to stand up and say that it’s wrong but yet i have asking for help help for 8 years and none of these people help me they did what the department of veterans did nothing

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