Uniform Fix

Why putting more military veterans on Capitol Hill won't end Washington's rampant partisanship.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 1992, the U.S. Army War College’s in-house journal, Parameters, published a highly thought-provoking essay by then-Lt. Col. Charles Dunlop entitled, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012." Dunlop employed the literary device of writing a letter from the perspective of an unnamed senior U.S. military officer — who was imprisoned for opposing the fictional future coup — explaining what had precipitated it:

Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation’s dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military’s obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country’s problems.

Though Dunlop was warning primarily about how the military could increasingly get drawn into a political leadership role by undertaking more and more civilian tasks at home — rather than preparing for war — the passage should be familiar to observers of Washington’s toxic environment. Today, Americans are beyond exasperated with the inability of the country’s elected leaders to address — much less solve — pressing national problems. In a June Gallup poll, when asked in which societal institutions they had the most confidence, Americans ranked the military first, with 76 percent of respondents having a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in it. The presidency came in far lower at 36 percent. Congress was dead last at 10 percent.

Congressional members are painfully aware that they are despised by the public, and they express self-loathing on the Senate and House floor that often resembles Maoist struggle sessions of self-debasement and self-criticism for dishonoring the Founding Fathers. Not coincidentally, these congressional members also look toward the ever-popular military for inspiration to rectify all that is wrong with Washington.

However, this habit of policymakers exalting the military as exemplars of accomplishment — in effect, asking generals and admirals to "save us from ourselves" — should be brought to a dignified end. Moreover, electing more service members and veterans to Congress will not repair what the Boston Globe termed in its series on political partisanship the "Broken City" of Washington.

During congressional hearings with military officers, policymakers question lightly and praise mightily. There is often an appropriate acknowledgement of the officers’ service, followed by an admission of failure for foisting continuing resolutions and budget sequestration onto the Pentagon. Finally, a congressional member might elevate the military above the legislative branch. For example, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) recently told the service chiefs, "You have more knowledge right now of what we need to defend the country and the resources that we have than this entire committee together." Or as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) noted, "I really think that you gentlemen should be questioning us because we are the parties at fault here." Here, lauding the military as the embodiment of sacrifice in the service of the country is done in lieu of congressional members taking the actual steps required to broker compromises.

In searching for a solution to this dysfunction, columnist Dana Milbank recently advocated compulsory military service and sending more veterans to Congress to foster greater bipartisan cooperation: "Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest." As the number of veterans on Capitol Hill has shrunk, policymakers have "lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country." Subsequently, the solution is to elect more veterans to Congress, because somehow their mere presence will cause partisanship to disappear and compel policymakers to work together.

There is just one tiny flaw with Milbank’s remedy: Congressional members who served in uniform are every bit as partisan as their civilian counterparts. Open Congress ranks how often members have voted with a majority of their party since the beginning of the 113th session of Congress. Thus far, representatives have voted with their party 93.8 percent of the time (93.3 percent of Democrats; 94.2 percent of Republicans), and senators have voted with their party 91.8 percent of the time (95 percent of Democrats; 88 percent of Republicans). There is no evidence to suggest that a steady decline in the number of congressional members who are veterans is correlated with a rise in partisanship. In fact, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), a former U.S. Navy reservist, has voted with his party 500 of 509 times, making him the most partisan member of Congress with a 98.2 percent rate of party-line votes.  

The data show that veterans are no more likely to act in the best interest of the country than non-veterans are. Currently, 86 of 435 representatives are veterans. In the house, 28 veteran Republicans vote with their party more frequently than the average Republican, 31 under the average, and three at the average. As for Democrats, five veteran representatives vote with their party more frequently than the average Democratic, 15 below the average, and 1 at the average. In the Senate, of the 17 veterans, four veteran Republicans vote with their party more frequently than the average Republican and four below the average, while three veteran Democrats vote with their party more frequently than the average Democratic, one below the average, and one at the average.

This inability to escape partisan chains is evident even in the rare, ceremonial congressional votes regarding uses of force. For example, in June 2011, Speaker John Boehner introduced a House resolution declaring that President Barack Obama should not deploy ground troops to Libya. Of the 413 votes cast, 87 percent of all congressional members voted along party lines. Of the 86 military veterans who voted, 86 percent sided with their party.

Recently, Rep. Steve Stivers, an Ohio National Guard member, noted, "It’s Congress that has the ultimate authority to decide whether to declare war. So having someone who understands what that means, and what that means in a human price for all these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, is a good thing." Stivers is undoubtedly correct, but setting aside that Congress has not declared war for 72 years, the military expertise that veterans bring to Congress clearly cannot overcome the bounds of party loyalty.

Thus, service members and veterans in both houses are as much a part of the problem as they are of the solution. In the current congressional climate, if they were not so strictly partisan, they would lose the support of their party’s leadership and likely not receive the funding necessary to be re-elected. Congressional voting has become increasingly polarized over the past 30 years, and demographic trends, continually gerrymandered districts, and permissive campaign financing indicate this will not change. More veterans will not overcome the deepening partisan divide in the United States and, by extension, on Capitol Hill.

Furthermore, glorifying the example of the military as an inspiration for reformed congressional behavior overlooks the many recent shortcomings demonstrated by those in uniform. In the past year alone, senior officers have been disciplined or relieved of command for use of profanity and racially insensitive comments, alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, gambling problems, misuse of government funds for personal reasons, misuse of government personnel for personal reasons, failure to take adequate force-protection measures, and demonstration of poor leadership while commanding nuclear forces — not to mention whatever fallout emerges from the sprawling Navy contractor scandal. We have been repeatedly reminded that military leaders can be every bit as human as elected politicians.

Most officers recognize the potential for a leadership and character crisis in their ranks as the military begins to reset after a dozen years of war. Though the character and competence of the vast majority of captains, colonels, and general officers is beyond reproach, further tarnishing the profession of arms could lead to losing the respect of civilian leaders and the public trust. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who often expresses concerns about this issue, has warned, "How we win is becoming as important as the fact that we win." 

The uniform is not a magical cloak, nor an adequate substitute for the underlying and institutionalized drivers of partisanship. The military cannot save Congress or Washington from its collective march toward policy paralysis. "Last year was a legislative wasteland," the Washington Post observed this week, with Congress working the fewest hours and passing the fewest pieces of legislation in modern history. As the 113th Congress starts its second session, policymakers, whether they are veterans or civilians, must take personal inventory for their own failures and recognize that only they have the agency and responsibility to change things.

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