On The Hill, Democrats Losing Top Voices On Defense

The House Armed Services Committee in action in December.

The House Armed Services Committee in action in December 2009. Democrats are losing some of their most experienced voices on military matters. The four most senior Democrats on the committee, including Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, failed to win re-election on Nov. 2. Harry Hamburg/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Hamburg/AP

Defense issues are likely to be contentious in the next Congress. Next summer's deadline for a possible troop drawdown from Afghanistan will trigger internal debates within both parties, while the Pentagon may be subject to the first spending cuts it has seen since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, owing to growing concerns about the deficit.

It's within this context that President Obama and other Democrats will feel the loss of some of their party's most experienced voices on military matters.

The four most senior Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, all lost their seats in the Nov. 2 elections. (Although one of the four has asked for a recount.)  They take with them more than 110 years of experience in Congress.

Their defeats followed the death last February of Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who had served for more than 20 years as the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that sets defense spending levels.

Skelton's gavel is expected to go to Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican who has said in interviews that he supports more defense spending and that U.S. troops in Afghanistan need "time" to achieve their goals.

"The loss of Ike Skelton was a real blow to the defense Democrats," says Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina. "There are strong Democrats like Susan Davis on the House Armed Services Committee, but they don't have the longevity or the prominence in public."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) speaks during a news conference in October. With the GOP taking control of the House, more pressure is on Levin and Democrats in the Senate to fight for the Obama administration's defense policies. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Who's Got Obama's Back?

Defense policy is largely set within the executive branch, but there, too, Obama is losing some of his most experienced help.

Obama fired James Jones, a former Marine general, as head of the National Security Council last month. And Robert Gates, the widely respected defense secretary, has signaled that he'll step down sometime next year.

"There are problems all around the circle," says Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University and a fellow at the Stimson Center, a think tank on global security issues.

"They've got problems losing spokesmen on the Hill, and not much military experience on the NSC," Adams says. "And new Pentagon leadership is not going to measure up to Gates' almost uncanny ability to please a lot of people at the same time. They've got their work cut out for them."

Stepping Up In The Senate

New blood always arrives to replace the loss of senior members. Norm Dicks of Washington, a 24-year veteran of the House, replaced Murtha as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

"As a centrist Democrat, Dicks will command a lot of respect," says John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World, a nuclear arms control advocacy group. "Maybe not as much as Murtha, but he was an institution unto himself."

Democrats still control the Senate, where Carl Levin of Michigan will continue to chair the Armed Services Committee. But Adams says that Levin, while a "smart guy," is stronger on details than in presenting any broad, strategic vision. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, is even more of a behind-the-scenes player.

When it comes to public spokesmen on military matters, it's likely that Democrats will increasingly turn to Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army Ranger who has been a longtime Obama adviser on defense, and Sen. James Webb of Virginia, a former Navy secretary.

But, for now, there's a question of who will take the lead in pushing Obama's priorities through Congress, or referee heated disputes about matters such as expensive weapons systems.

"Levin's got a lot of credibility, but the question is who will cut the debate short, where the administration could really use the help of a person of stature," says Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

"If you're in the administration and you have to make a tough decision, you could call in an Ike Skelton and say, 'Here's what I have to do, how do I get it done?' "

Helping Set The Course

Democrats may feel the loss of a Skelton or a Murtha when it comes time to vote on a contentious defense issue, analysts say — for example, if Obama includes in his next budget something like the preliminary recommendation released Wednesday by his debt commission co-chairs to cut defense spending.

Because of their credibility, these senior members could both signal a preferred way to vote while lending political cover to others if the matter at hand were controversial. As in the old brokerage commercials, when they speak, people listen.

"There are certain members who develop expertise and when they speak on the floor, other members trust their judgment on those issues," says Donald Ritchie, the U.S. Senate historian.

Murtha was famous for delivering earmarks for his district, but he was also able to figure out what the services wanted that their civilian masters in the executive branch weren't providing for them, says Korb — and he had the stature to deliver for them.

While Democrats will replace their ousted senior members on the House Armed Services Committee, it will take some time before the younger people coming up will be as seasoned or influential.

John Spratt of South Carolina, for instance, was not only the committee's second-ranking Democrat but also chaired the House Budget Committee and had long ago worked in the Pentagon comptroller's office. It's not clear whether there will be anyone in the House Democratic caucus able to match his authority on defense budget issues.

"For the new members, there's a steep learning curve," says James M. Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's a big budget with a lot of programs and a lot of complexity. You have to learn everything, from what drives spending on military health care to the ins and outs of the F-35."

Losing A Brick Wall

While the loss of figures such as Spratt, Skelton and Murtha could make it harder for Obama to push defense changes through Congress, in certain ways it might make things easier for him. Institutional knowledge is a powerful force on Capitol Hill, but senior members can also create obstacles when it comes time to alter the status quo.

"If you look at the history of these things, it will take someone time to gain the ability to deliver the way a Murtha did," says Nancy E. Soderberg, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, who now heads the Connect U.S. Fund, a foundation that supports U.S.-based organizations working on global issues.

"But if you don't have the brick wall of a Murtha, things might be easier for a president and congressional leaders trying to shape the Defense Department," she says.

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