Rep. Mac Thornberry on Monday became the sixth Republican on the House Armed Services Committee to announce plans to retire at the end of this Congress, creating openings for ambitious younger members but also leaving a significant dearth of experience on the powerful panel.
Thornberry, a Texas Republican who spent two terms as Armed Services chairman before becoming ranking member after Democrats won control of the House, has been an ardent backer of higher Pentagon spending levels and a reliable hawk on policy matters ranging from the size of the Navy fleet to the nuclear arsenal.
Thornberry backed the White House's push to drive up defense spending, but he has not been a particularly close ally of President Donald Trump. A traditionally measured lawmaker, Thornberry disagreed with Trump on plans to reduce troops in Syria and a handful of other matters, but hasn't overtly criticized the commander in chief.
Barring a waiver from leadership, Thornberry's six years atop the committee would have come to an end at the end of the 116th Congress. But his retirement announcement with more than a year remaining in this Congress will almost certainly jumpstart the race for his successor.
After Monday’s announcement, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina is poised to become the most senior Republican on the panel in the next Congress.
“I am grateful to have served with Representative Mac, a champion of many conservative victories promoting peace through strength,” Wilson said in a statement.
To assume leadership positions, lawmakers typically boast a sizable leadership political action committee, or PAC, that actively distributes funds to other members. Thornberry’s PAC, for instance, has raised $102,000 so far this cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics for the Center for Responsive Politics.
If PAC size is any indication of who may take Thornberry's position, Wilson has some catching up to do.
Since the beginning of 2019, Turner’s leadership PAC has raised $42,230 and spent $78,417, while Rogers’ has raised $47,250 and spent $44,962. Over the same period, Wilson’s PAC has collected $9,000 and distributed $2,159.
The other committee Republicans who have already announced retirement plans include Rob Bishop of Utah, K. Michael Conaway of Texas, Paul Cook of California, Bradley Byrne of Alabama, and Paul Mitchell of Michigan. Bishop is the third-ranking Republican on the panel and Conaway is the sixth.
For Democrats, Susan A. Davis of California has been the only committee member to announce retirement plans.
In a Monday note to investors, defense analyst Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners said it was too soon to tell what effect Thornberry’s departure might have on future defense budgets and specific programs and contractors.
Assuming Democrats keep the House in 2020, Callan wrote, a big factor will be how well the next ranking member gets along with the current chairman, Adam Smith of Washington.
“A more partisan divide may make it tougher for the House to reach agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act — at the least, it may create a noisier debate preceding its passage,” Callan noted.
Smith and Thornberry, both thoughtful and pragmatic lawmakers, had a good working relationship as they led the typically bipartisan committee for the last several years. But fractures in their comity were evident at the spring markup of the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill, which was punctuated by partisan squabbles on a range of topics, including budgetary toplines and nuclear policy.
Still, Smith had nothing but praise for his colleague Monday, saying he has "always been impressed with his intelligence and tenacity."
"Together we have passed smart reforms that give our men and women in uniform the resources they need to make our country safer," Smith said in a statement.
As the more seasoned Republicans vie for Thornberry's job, a crop of emerging hawks on the panel may play more prominent roles.
Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York is currently serving her third term in Congress and is the ranking member of the Armed Services intelligence and emerging threats subcommittee, a position once held by Thornberry.
Stefanik, who was the youngest member of Congress when first elected at age 30 and whose district includes Fort Drum, has emerged as a staunch supporter of the nuclear triad and advocate on behalf of an East Coast site for ground-based interceptor designed to shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile.
Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, an Iraq war veteran who is now in his second term, has also established himself as an important policy voice.
A former Marine Corps captain, Gallagher has been a hawk on Chinese use of 5G networks to infiltrate U.S. networks and capabilities. He was the lead sponsor of Defending America’s 5G Future Act, a bipartisan, bicameral effort to counter the influence of Chinese firm Huawei introduced in July.
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