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Number of veterans in Congress continues to decline

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Last week, Susan Davis at USA Today reported on the decreasing number of military veterans serving in the Congress, noting that “when the next session convenes in January, the two chambers will have the fewest number of veterans serving since World War II.” She continues:

In 2013, just 19% of the 535 combined members in the U.S. House and Senate will have active-duty military service on their resume, down from a peak in 1977 when 80% of lawmakers boasted military service. In the current Congress, 22% are military veterans.

The transition from the draft to an all-volunteer military in 1973 is a driving force of the decline, but veterans and their advocates say they face more challenges running for office in the modern era of political campaigns.

“There’s so few opportunities that we have where veterans can run a federal campaign,” said Jon Soltz of VoteVets.org, a liberal veterans’ advocacy group that supports candidates for office. “They are credible messengers to the public, but only if they’re financed. A veteran with a great narrative that doesn’t have the infrastructure to sell themselves is a tree falling alone in the woods.”

Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, said the realities of modern military life make it difficult for veterans to establish roots in a community to build political networks and the financial backing to run for office. “Oftentimes, veterans don’t travel in those circles,” Celli said.

Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said she faced “huge challenges” in her campaign, which initially showed her 45 percentage points down in the race. She said she used her skills as a platoon leader to manage her grass-roots campaign operation for a victory, but she noted that many veteran candidates face challenges to raise money. “Generally, veterans tend not to be wealthy people,” she said. […]

More than 2.4 million military personnel have been deployed in support of U.S. war efforts since Sept. 11, 2001. Though the number of overall veterans is declining, the number of veterans from the two conflicts is on the rise. Among the 103 veterans in the next Congress, 16 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cotton is among a crop of standout military veterans from the era that includes Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Gabbard, the first two female combat veterans to serve in Congress.

As the article goes on to note, this continuing change of civil-military relations within Congress can have important policy effects. For example, “advocates acknowledge that veterans’ decline in the congressional ranks could hold real-time repercussions for the military and veterans, both of which are in the thick of negotiations to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ at the end of the year when the George W. Bush-era tax rates expire and spending cuts threaten defense programs.”

Read the whole thing here.