Rep. Ralph Hall, an 88-year-old Texas Republican, says Congress used to be a different place for veterans.
“Sonny Montgomery from Mississippi, he was the chair of the Veterans Committee,” recalled Hall, a World War II veteran elected to office in 1980, of the late Democratic Representative. “If a piece of veterans legislation was missing four votes on the floor, he’d go after Members; he’d say, ‘Is there a problem? Are you missing something?’
“People were voting for veterans back then,” Hall said. “It’s hard to get anything through nowadays.”
Montgomery, who had an expansive military career, served in Congress for 30 years. He fought so hard for veterans that the expanded GI bill passed in 1984 was named for him.
But even at the peak of Montgomery’s Congressional career, the number of veterans on Capitol Hill was waning, and lawmaker-veterans say the decline was and is palpable.
When Montgomery came to Congress in 1967, 69 percent of all lawmakers were veterans. From 1969 to 1973, veteran Members accounted for 73 percent of lawmakers, an all-time high in modern history.
The years that followed saw a steady decline in the numbers. According to a study compiled by an analyst for the Military Officers Association of America, between 1993 and 1995 the percentage of veterans in Congress dropped from 52 percent to 44 percent — the first time since 1951 that veterans made up less than half of the Members of Congress.
And in the 112th Congress, veterans make up roughly 21 percent. Just five are World War II veterans.
“Entering elected office in the civilian sphere was a natural extension of past military service from their early adulthood,” Jeremy Teigen, associate professor of political science at Ramapo College in New Jersey, said of the World War II generation. “Perhaps the motivation to serve during wartime connects to the willingness to run for political office.”
This was true for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a World War II veteran elected to the Senate in 1982.
“The values I learned in the Army and as a veteran will always inspire my work in Congress to strengthen America,” he said.
But by the Vietnam War era, there were fewer veterans who felt compelled to enter politics, Teigen said. This phenomenon was, in part, the result of a divisive and controversial military operation. The Vietnam War was divisive even for those who served, many of whom were compelled by the draft.
But while veterans serving on Capitol Hill today all say that they notice they are fewer in number, they are less united in what exactly this means in the long run.
Hall says the biggest difference he perceives is the dearth of veterans’ advocates — fewer Sonny Montgomerys, as it were.
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.