Defense: 10 Staffers to Know

The world of defense encompasses a range of related issues, from procurement to personnel to weapons systems — and their respective price tags. This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up its 2010 defense authorization act; last week, the House Armed Services Committee marked up its 2010 legislation. Here are 10 Hill staffers who play important roles in establishing the nation’s defense policy and priorities.

John Chapla, professional staff, House Armed Services Committee, minority
Age: 62
Birthplace: Cleveland
Education: B.A., Virginia Military Institute; M.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Military: Lt. Col., Army (retired)

John Chapla joined the House Armed Services Committee in 1995, and for the past 11 years he has directed the professional staff on the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

Chapla has served three different committee chairmen and has supervised the activities of professional staff to compile language for 12 annual defense authorization bills. Other legislative initiatives he helped push through include military pay and bonus increases for troops, military retirement reform, growth in military personnel strength, and the creation of the TRICARE for Life medical benefit program.

Before coming to the committee, Chapla was director of government and public affairs for the Association of the United States Army. Prior to that, he served for nearly 22 years in the Army.

Chapla is an accomplished military historian, having written the regimental histories of the 42nd, 48th and 50th Virginia infantries, which are part of the Virginia Regimental Histories Series.

Lobbyists describe him as “a true professional.—

The way Chapla sees it: “I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I see our job as simply teeing up things for the Members to consider.—

Erin Conaton, staff director, House Armed Services Committee, majority
Age: 38
Birthplace: Rutherford, N.J.
Education: Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service, Georgetown University; M.A., Tufts University

Erin Conaton started working on the House Armed Services Committee in 2001, quickly moving up through the ranks to become staff director in 2006.

She manages nearly 70 employees and works closely with her boss, Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).

The work is rewarding, she explained, because every year the committee takes up authorization legislation that outlines the country’s military priorities.

“She’s well-respected amongst her peers, and extraordinarily capable of handling not only the administrative duties of the committee but also grasping difficult policy issues,— said a defense industry lobbyist who has worked with her.

Her message to lobbyists: “Do your homework and know your issues.—

“We’re not judging what the lobbyists say in a vacuum. We try to hear from multiple perspectives,— Conaton said.

In the weeks ahead, she said, she will look at how the defense authorization bill performs on the House floor and follow most closely issues related to missile defense and detainee treatment at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention center.

Peter Levine, counsel for Senate Armed Services Committee, majority
Age: 51
Birthplace: Santa Monica, Calif.
Education: B.A., Harvard University; J.D., Harvard

Peter Levine, a top aide to Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is well-known in defense circles, earning a reputation for his “toughness— and “rigorous thinking— on defense issues.

“On Capitol Hill, he has the best corporate memory of any of the staff on the acquisition end because he’s been working there for so long,— one defense lobbyist said. “He’s very open-minded about things and very principled on how he deals with issues.—

Levine, who declined to be interviewed, earned his policy acumen from more than two decades on Capitol Hill, starting with what is now the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

After more than five years at the panel, he moved to Levin’s personal office before heading to the Armed Services Committee, where he has worked as Levin’s lawyer.

According to published reports, Levine is known for his role as a watchdog, working on investigations into contractor abuse.

Lucian Niemeyer, professional staff, Senate Armed Services Committee, minority
Age: 45
Birthplace: Fort Benning, Ga.
Education: B.A., Notre Dame University; M.B.A., George Washington University; master’s in international strategic studies, Naval War College
Military: Lt. Col., Air Force (retired)

A military housing specialist, Niemeyer shares a much different point of view of the lobbying profession than Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.). But like McCain, he apparently has no hesitation in speaking his mind.

“Lobbying is an absolutely essential part of the representative process,— Niemeyer said. “The whole idea of a representative democracy is that you have citizens come in and air grievances.— But lobbyists, he said, not ordinary citizens, are the ones usually familiar with the arcane language of the defense world.

“I don’t think there’s anyone up here who doesn’t realize the vital role [lobbyists] play and how absolutely essential they are to the process.—

He added: “My boss might have a slightly different view.—

A defense lobbyist described Niemeyer as “very capable— and “technical,— and warned that it’s important to do your homework before approaching him.

Niemeyer predicted that it’s going to be a big year on his committee for military hardware systems. Complicating matters, however, is that with a tight budget, Congressional check-writers are going to have to do more with less.

A veteran of the contentious Base Closure and Realignment Commission process of 2005 — a process he called “an abject failure— — Niemeyer said he works closely with Democratic staff and “can’t really think of one issue where my majority counterpart and I haven’t completely agreed what the right thing is to do for our troops.—

Chris Paul, professional staff, Senate Armed Services Committee, minority
Age: 50
Birthplace: Naval Air Engineering Station, Lakehurst, N.J.
Education: B.S., U.S. Naval Academy
Military: Rear Adm., Navy Reserve

Paul is particularly proud of the contributions he made to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) work reining in defense contractor abuse over the past decade.

“We helped put oversight back into Congress,— Paul said.

In the coming months, Paul will help the committee craft the 2010 defense budget and will continue to work on acquisition reform, another McCain priority.

Described by one defense lobbyist as a “very passionate person,— Paul said taxpayers are increasingly frustrated with defense acquisitions programs.

“When you have a presidential helicopter that is the most expensive helicopter in the world at $500 million a copy, it causes great pause and people wonder what’s going on up here,— he said.

The lobbyist said defense matters are not simply academic matters to Paul.

“He brings a lot of strong passion to the issues he believes in,— the lobbyist said. “I’ve found him to be someone I could always work with, but he has very strong views.—

Brian Potts, professional staff, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, minority
Age: 37
Birthplace: Philipsburg, Pa.
Education: B.A., Indiana University of Pennsylvania

A self-described “numbers guy,— Potts is a certified public accountant who got his start in the Naval Audit Service.

These days, Potts spends the bulk of his time working on next year’s defense spending bills, which are requiring appropriators and their staffs to stretch defense dollars more than they have in the past.

“We just completed work on the ’09 supplemental appropriations bill [and] we’re turning our focus to the fiscal year 2010 Defense appropriations bill as well as the 2010 overseas contingency operations funding — that will be our focus for the remainder of the year,— he said. “During that debate, there will be a lot of discussion on [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates’ recent announcements on major acquisition programs, cancellations and terminations.—

Defense lobbyists beamed about Potts, whom one K Streeter called “very accessible— and “straightforward,— with another lobbyist going so far to say that he loves the aide to death. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but it’s not going to be a painful meeting,— the second lobbyist said.

Potts said he keeps an open mind when dealing with industry representatives.

“He’s willing to get down in the weeds in a lot of these things,— the defense lobbyist noted.

Arun Seraphin, professional staff, Senate Armed Services Committee, majority
Age: 39
Birthplace: Long Island, N.Y.
Education: B.A., State University of New York at Stony Brook; Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Arun Seraphin said his job provides a perfect place “where our research can have a positive effect on the lives of the troops.—

Seraphin’s role on the committee is to review the Department of Defense’s science and technology and information technology programs. He acknowledges good ideas can come from anywhere, so he always makes time to hear out defense observers and industry consultants on their issues.

“We listen to as many ideas as we can,— he said.

His colleagues say his understanding of highly technical science and technology programs at the Pentagon — he earned his Ph.D. in materials engineering — impresses them.

And Seraphin also has nice things to say about his co-workers.

“The best part about working on Capitol Hill is being around knowledgeable colleagues,— he said. “The public thinks we’re just a bunch of 26-year-olds working here. That’s not true. The fact is we have an experienced, fantastic and impressive staff.—

After the Senate wraps up the defense authorization bill, Seraphin said he plans to continue focusing on next-generation threat capabilities and other IT initiatives.

Jenness Simler, professional staff, House Armed Services Committee, minority
Age: 35
Birthplace: Okinawa, Japan (raised in Mississippi)
Education: B.S., Millsaps College; M.B.A., University of Maryland at College Park

Jenness Simler has made a name for herself this year on defense acquisition reform.

Once the issue was brought up by the new administration, Simler led the GOP staff in outlining part of the procurement reform legislation, a bill that was ultimately signed into law this year.

Simler joined the committee in 2005, leading the minority on the Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces. There, she oversees Navy and Marine Corps procurement and research and development programs.

She also is a member of the policy staff for the full committee.

“The staff here is so much fun,— she said. “We work long, tough days, and we view this as our way of giving back.—

Before joining the committee, Simler worked on the Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

She also worked at the Office of Naval Research, where she was responsible for the Navy’s Manufacturing Technology Program in advanced composite materials and joining technologies.

An industry consultant who has worked with her said Simler “possesses the cherished ability to dig deep into program details and to translate issues into a language the rest of the universe can understand.—

Bob Simmons, staff director, House Armed Services Committee, minority
Age: 53
Birthplace: Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Education: B.S., San Diego State University

As the top GOP staffer on House Armed Services, Bob Simmons plans and implements the agenda and operations of the minority, including passage of the annual defense authorization bill.

He has been leading the minority staff since 2005, after being recruited by former Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

Prior to coming to Washington, Simmons ran Senior Aerospace, a leading aerospace manufacturer in San Diego.

Simmons maintains a friendly, laid-back work environment, something he hopes will encourage his staff to enjoy their time at work, especially when they stay long hours putting together the defense authorization bill.

Industry observers say Simmons plays an important role on the Hill, handling the transition of ranking members when Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) took over for Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), who has been nominated to become secretary of the Army.

When lobbyists approach him, Simmons said, his priority is to connect them with the Member who handles a specific issue.

After settling with his family in a Maryland suburb, Simmons still considers himself an outsider on the Beltway scene. “I’m not a legacy Hill person. And to get results here, I manage employees’ needs, and that includes ensuring the staff has time to spend with their family,— he said.

John Wason, professional staff, House Armed Services Committee, minority
Age: 46
Birthplace: Fort Ord, Calif.
Education: B.A.,California State University; M.S., Florida Institute of Technology
Military: Lt. Col., Army (retired)

Wason sees his work on the committee as a natural extension of his many years of military service, which allows him to be “intertwined with my former colleagues, who are either in Iraq or Afghanistan or at the Pentagon. This job allows me to take trips to see what’s working and what isn’t working,— he added.

A military equipment expert, Wason said the Armed Services panel is sorting through how to shift defense spending from supplemental spending bills to the regular budget process.

Despite policy differences, he said majority and minority staffers work particularly well together on hardware issues — so much so, in fact, that “in many cases you couldn’t tell the difference between the majority staff and the minority staff.—

“With the tightening of the economy and the direction of the new administration, how will the Army be able to migrate from that supplemental funding into the base budget?— he said.

“The reality is Congress needs to watch that debate.—