Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a World War II veteran elected in 1955 and now the longest-serving Member of the House, agreed.
“A lot of [Members] now are more concerned about budget issues and things of that kind,” he said. “They are less concerned with veterans’ rights and duties towards veterans, much less than did the guys who came in with me at the end of World War II.”
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years, said that when he was elected in 1991, veterans brought to Capitol Hill a certain confidence in legislating seen less frequently today.
“There was a broader base of understanding about what was going on in the world, and we could apply it to the United States and make good decisions,” said Johnson, who came to Congress when veterans made up 52 percent of the House and Senate classes combined. “Veterans understood the consequences of the laws they made, and they were able to make sure non-military Members had the same understanding.”
Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said that Congress today lacks veterans who can dive immediately into the weeds of military and defense legislation and spending.
Having both served themselves, the two Congressmen said they know where money would best be allocated and what programs are most in need of reform.
Other lawmakers who spent time in the military consider themselves, first and foremost, arbiters of civility in the halls of Congress. They identify a link between the waning number of veterans in federal office and the increased polarization between Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m a Republican, I believe what I believe, but one thing I don’t like is seeing politics becoming as personal as it’s become,” said Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a freshman who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re fighting personally against each other, when you have people overseas who are fighting and dying for our rights to do that.”
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), a World War II veteran preparing to retire after more than three decades in Congress, said he understands where Kinzinger is coming from.
“When I first came to Congress, many of us shared a common bond of military service,” he said. “Although we disagreed on issues, our memories of the war and our shared service brought us together to find solutions. Our service-time experiences only added to the level of camaraderie among Members.”
“I suppose there’s some truth to it,” said fellow Hawaiian Democrat and World War II veteran Sen. Daniel Inouye, who was first elected in 1959 as a Member of the House. “As you put on the uniform, you have something in common, something to talk about.”
But as far as the culture of the institution is concerned, Inouye had a different take than his colleagues.
The decline in the number of veterans, he said, “really doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.