When the 117th Congress of the United States was sworn in, Capitol Hill will have 91 Veterans of the United States military serving in its halls. Of the 91 Veterans who will be serving in the nation’s most powerful legislative body, 50 of them didn’t begin their military careers until after the year 2000; 49 have overseas combat experience; 6 are women (a decrease of 1 from the previous congress; and 15 are first time lawmakers. While we are encouraged that so many of these Vets are young, the fact remains: Veteran presence within the Congressional body has reached its lowest level since World War II.
Why There are Fewer Veterans in Congress Today
There are several factors which contribute to the decline of Veterans serving in Congress, here are five of the most significant reasons why there are fewer veterans in Congress today:
A Volunteer Force
According to the Military Officer’s Association of America, “In 1973, nearly three in every four members of Congress had some type of military service. In 2021, it’ll be about one in every six members who have military experience.” The transition into an entirely volunteer military force has likely contributed greatly to the steady decline of Veterans in Congress. As noted by History.com, the United States has implemented several drafts since its founding, beginning with the Civil War and again during each World War. The first peacetime draft was instituted the Burke-Wadsworth Act in 1940 and “between 1948 and 1973, men were drafted into the armed forces in both peacetime and conflict periods.” A direct line can be drawn to the decline of Veterans in Congress from the end of military conscription in the 1970’s.
Campaigns are Expensive
Perhaps one of the most prohibitive aspects of mounting a campaign for public office at the federal level is the vast fortune required to be competitive. On our most recent elections, The New York Times notes, “the 2020 election has blown past previous records to become the most expensive campaign in American history, with the final tally for the battle for the White House and control of the Senate and the House expected to hit nearly $14 billion.” That is double the record spent by candidates in 2016. OpenSecrets.org reports that $8.7 billion alone was spent on Congressional seats, averaging out to $18.58 million per seat spent by both candidates and private groups for the 468 races that occurred between the House and Senate.
Lack of Networking
One of the most important pieces of the election puzzle is having a reliable network and campaign infrastructure in place. As noted above, raising the millions needed to run a successful election campaign is daunting enough, but going head-to-head with established politicians requires much more than money. Candidates need effective PR, campaign staff, advertisement, and expensive media presence to be competitive. Establishing a winning campaign infrastructure is a major challenge to any new politician, Veteran or not, and the effort to educate Veterans on effective campaign networking strategies has been a focus of several prominent Veteran PACs and organizations in recent years.
Incumbents are Hard to Beat
While we are thrilled whenever a new Veteran is elected into office, only 15 of the 91 Veterans elected in 2020 being first time office holders reflects the reality of defeating an incumbent: it is incredibly difficult. CNBC notes that in 2016, for instance, incumbents in both the House and Senate enjoyed a 97% success rate in their reelection campaigns. In general, since 1964, “voters have sent their incumbent House representative back to Washington 93 percent of the time. Senators enjoy only slightly less job security — 82 percent.” Incumbents have the benefit of experience, are more familiar to voters, and have entrenched fundraising and campaign networks which together create an edge over a challenger. With so many incumbents being non-Vets, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse the trend over time.
Fewer Veterans are Running for Office
Within the context of recent history, fewer Veterans have been running for office than in previous eras of American politics. In 2014, Military Times noted, “according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Veterans Campaign, only 183 of the 865 major-party candidates up for election to Congress this year boast military experience. It’s the first time in recent memory that fewer than 200 veterans were on the campaign trail in the congressional races.” The publication also notes that 2020 saw 182 Vets running for Congress, which was an uptick from 173 in 2018, but still less than 2014. The good news is, numbers increased in 2020, and as a younger generation of Veterans from the War on Terror continue to mature, we are cautiously optimistic that these trends will begin to reverse, leading to more Veterans returning to the halls of Congress.
Image Credit: Photo by Elevenphotographs on Unsplash
For much of the American public, Veterans are given the unique honor in our society of near universal respect and praise. Service Members and Veterans put themselves on the line to protect our liberties and in return the public pledges support to them through government benefits and programs. But according to analysis recently conducted by the Roper Center, the public at large believes that the government is not doing enough through its federal programs to honor the sacrifices made by those in uniform.