The South Has Risen Again With Panel Chairmen

Posted May 21, 2010 at 2:29pm

The Senate Armed Services Committee has existed in its present form since 1946 — just after World War II.

Before then, its responsibilities were divided between two standing panels: the Naval Affairs and Military Affairs committees. Both were established in 1816.

Two former chairmen of the Military Affairs Committee went on to become president: Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison. Harrison, in fact, immediately followed Jackson as chairman (Martin Van Buren was sandwiched between them when it came to serving in the White House).

A president of a different sort also held the gavel at Military Affairs: Jefferson Davis, who, of course, later went on to become president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Davis was chairman of the committee from 1849 to 1851, and again from 1857 to 1861.

The longest-serving chairman of the Military Affairs Committee was Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who served as an aide-de-camp to Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 and later was a legislative adviser to Jackson when he was president. Benton, who held the gavel for 17 years, was the great uncle and namesake of Thomas Hart Benton, the famous painter of Western landscapes.

The longest-serving chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee was Sen. J. Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, who ran the committee for 14 years during the 1880s and ’90s. Before joining the Senate, Cameron was secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant.

Although some chairmen have held the gavel for decent intervals of time since the modern-era Armed Services Committee was created, the most noteworthy thing about the committee is that it has been controlled for most of that time by southerners — or at least Senators from the Sun Belt. Since 1947, northerners have held the gavel for only 13 years. Prominent southern or Sun Belt chairmen include former Sens. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), John Stennis (D-Miss.), John Tower (R-Texas), Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and John Warner (R-Va.).

An exception to the trend, of course, is the current chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, who has run the panel since the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007. The Michigan Democrat also served as chairman from 2001 to 2003. The committee’s five most senior Republicans — ranking member John McCain (Ariz.) and Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — are from the Sun Belt, however.