Titans of defense and foreign policy who shaped America's military policies for the past three decades are on their way out of Congress -- leaving a void at exactly the wrong time, Pentagon watchers fear.
At least half a dozen heavyweights, such as Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), either announced retirement or lost their seats this fall. Their successors will carry far less clout on Capitol Hill -- and few took office vowing to carry the mantle of the military.
That's bad news for the Pentagon, which is facing the first serious threat to its funding in years -- including more cuts of nearly $500 billion over the next 10 years if the country slides over the fiscal cliff at the beginning of next year.
"It's bad news for anyone who cares about the military," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"This doesn't bode well for Congress," he said. "The last thing we need are so-called defense hawks without proper military credentials out there spouting off, pontificating about stuff they know nothing about."
There's also the question of foreign policy as turmoil mounts in the Middle East and American rivals emerge in Asia.
"I really worry when you look at the Asian issues, per se -- so vital to what we're doing," retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said, noting its relevance to commercial shipments from the Straits of Malacca to ports in China, Korea and Japan. "The bench is very thin in terms of people who really have a broad range of experience and can make the connections."
Webb, who is leaving after just one term, may have been a newcomer to the Senate, but as a Vietnam veteran and a former Reagan-era Navy secretary, he's become one of the Hill's most respected voices on military matters. Democratic leaders pleaded with him upon his arrival in 2007 to sit on the Armed Services Committee.
The loss of institutional knowledge also can make a difference when probing the Pentagon, Webb said, noting it took the Defense Department about a year to answer one of his questions about the percentage of service members who leave before their first enlistment is over.
Two departing lawmakers who do know what they're talking about -- Lugar and Dicks -- came to Washington in 1977.
Lugar, who lost in the Indiana Republican primary earlier this year, scuttling his bid for a seventh term, will be remembered for his leadership on the Foreign Relations Committee and his work with then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) on chemical, biological and nuclear weapon disarmament.
"The world would have been, without question, a far more dangerous and threatening place were it not for these two patriots," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this month during an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar program.
Democrats also are losing a powerful defense voice with Dicks, a Washington state congressman whose district includes the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and borders McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis. He ends his career as ranking member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.
"The charge against Democrats was that we were soft on defense. People like Norm Dicks proved that wrong time and time again," Manley said.
Many other veterans with military experience are also heading for the exits, including Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), who served 20 years in the Army and did two tours as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a former Army officer who chairs the Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee; and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who served as a civilian with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II before doing active duty after the war.
"We're missing something when there's not a lot of direct experience," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of the final two World War II veterans remaining in the Senate alongside Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). "You see my view on what happens from the cost of service," Lautenberg added, gesturing to the hallway outside his office in the Hart Senate Building, which is decorated with posters of The Washington Post's "Faces of the Fallen" casualties.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who will be back in 2013, said he's noticed the "troubling trend" as colleagues with military service leave Congress, pointing to a recent Armed Services Committee markup in which the panel spent "an inordinate amount of time -- a very inordinate amount of time - was spent on discussing social-type issues."
"If you're new to the Senate, and you have no military experience, your focus can get off the more important issues because they're complicated; they have histories; and they're tough, tough issues," Sessions said. "That kind of experience is very valuable; and we have less of it; and that will be a loss."
Congress isn't just losing lawmakers with direct military service. Also going are stalwarts like Lewis, a 17-term California Republican congressman who held the Pentagon's purse strings during the early years of the George W. Bush administration; and Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee who has helped bring both parties together on divisive issues, like repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and global warming.
Lieberman's departure will affect the entire Senate, Sessions said. "He would bring along a lot of members who were uncertain about big issues," he said. "People would often carry votes with him. They would respect his judgment even if they were a bit unsure themselves."
"The way [Lieberman] could work on both sides is an asset. You feel a void as you lose a guy like that," added former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
"He has been one of the strongest voices for national security and for the role of America around the world." said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who has become a more frequent partner with Lieberman's longtime allies Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
A handful of one-term legislators headed for the exits also left an impression for their work on defense issues.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who lost to Elizabeth Warren last month, is a colonel in the National Guard who sits on the Armed Services, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security committees. "He was just getting in the groove of becoming even more influential," Sessions said.
While Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) may be best-known for his inflammatory remarks accusing Democrats of being communists, he also made a name for himself during his term on the Armed Services Committee. A former Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, West was not shy about confronting Pentagon officials on military matters.
"Allen West, he's respected as a guy who's been on the ground and has combat experience and was able to impact the Armed Services Committee," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who served with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. "He could kind of see through the baloney that other folks can't see through cause they hadn't served and implemented what Congress put forth."
"The collective knowledge that all these guys share is now going to be gone," Hunter added.
Not all lawmakers see the departures in a negative light.
"It might be very, very positive because when at least 20 percent of the defense budget is blown, totally wasted, maybe we'll start getting some transparency and clarity," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said. "I'm saying there's no oversight, and there's nobody challenging the things where things aren't going well, but Congress can do better."
Many big names will of course be sticking around to give Congress continuity on military and foreign affairs matters, including Armed Services committee chairmen Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). In an interview, Levin downplayed what even he acknowledged is a large degree of turnover. "Obviously, I hate to see a lot of people leave," he said. "But there'll be a lot of experience left that'll be able to maintain the institutional memory."
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