Heavy turnover threatens to end the bipartisan camaraderie that has long defined the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), defense industry insiders and congressional aides say.
The Armed Services panel for years has been among the most stable committees in Congress, but it has seen huge turnover in the last three wave elections. The group was hit particularly hard in 2010, when a number of veteran members retired or lost reelection.
The upcoming election is poised to be another year of change. Two subcommittee chairmen, Reps. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), are leaving, and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) is in danger of losing his seat. In all, eight members are already leaving the committee or trailing in their races, according to The Hill’s House ratings, while another six are in toss-up contests.
“It has gotten younger and more polarized, and it will continue to get that way, especially with this next Congress and the subcommittee chairs turning over,” said one House Republican aide.
The trend line toward a younger, more partisan committee is reflective of the larger Congress, which had an influx of new Tea Party members in 2010 vowing to do things differently in Washington. That followed two wave elections for Democrats, when many longtime GOP members were defeated or retired.
“The HASC is a microcosm of the whole House,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.
“As older members are replaced by younger ones, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, compromise is becoming less common,” he said. “This reflects the drift of the Republican Party toward ideological inflexibility on many major issues, most notably taxes and entitlements.”
The fight over sequestration and taxes has only added to the partisan bickering.
The sharper tone was evident in August, when acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients appeared before the committee on the sequestration cuts. The hearing devolved into a near-shouting match between Zients and some Republicans, prompting Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) to note his discomfort and ranking member Adam SmithAdam SmithHouse passes Mattis waiver, setting up quick confirmation Overnight Defense: Mattis cruises through confirmation hearing Top defense Dem urges House to vote against Mattis waiver MORE (D-Wash.) to issue a statement expressing “displeasure” with the hearing’s tone.
Aides on the committee and some defense watchers dispute a long-term partisan trend, arguing the committee is caught in an unprecedented election-year battle over taxes and spending.
They acknowledge there have been some tense moments this year, particularly surrounding sequestration, but say the committee remains committed to its bipartisan track record.
The panel’s defenders point to the success of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets Pentagon policy and authorizes more than $500 billion in defense spending. The bill has passed for 50 straight years, frequently with bipartisan support in committee and on the floor.
“You can’t judge polarization based on how engaged members become in the issues of the day, but on how they resolve those difference to fulfill the committee’s core mission: passing the NDAA by large bipartisan majorities,” said Claude Chafin, McKeon’s spokesman. “This committee has an excellent record of getting that done every year.”
Another Republican congressional staffer acknowledged the spike in partisanship since the 2010 midterms but said defense lawmakers in the House are still able to effectively reach beyond party lines. “Compared to other committees … there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes,” the staffer said.
“The HASC is not going to become the Judiciary [Committee],” one longtime former committee aide said.
Aides from both parties note that the committee has undergone a changing of the guard, particularly with the departure of former Chairmen Duncan Hunter Sr. (R-Calif.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.). Those lawmakers, and others with decades of experience, like Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), were known for their across-the-aisle dealmaking.
McKeon and Smith have a good relationship in the committee, according to sources close to both lawmakers. They acknowledge there have been some sharp disagreements over sequestration this year and that the two don’t buck their own party leadership as much as previous committee heads might have.
Democrats say the freshman Republicans on the panel have brought a more partisan attitude.
“The infusion of the Tea Party members — they brought some hostility with them,” said one Democratic House aide. “I don’t believe they understood how this place worked.”
Republican staffers said the new lawmakers are learning the ropes, like freshmen always do, and argue there has been noticeable change already in their second year.
Democratic staffers also cited GOP subcommittee chairmen as a source of heightened polarization, though some said their own side has been more vocal as well. Rep. Michael Turner’s (R-Ohio) subcommittee is a particular source of contention, as he heads up the always-divisive panel handling nuclear-weapons issues.
A Turner spokesman said the congressman fights for what he believes in, adding that he has a good relationship with his ranking member, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).
Russell Rumbaugh, a defense analyst at the Stimson Center and former congressional staffer, noted that the GOP subcommittee chairmen are more junior members because of the high GOP turnover in 2006 and 2008.
“Because HASC is such a valuable committee, it traditionally takes a long time to walk up the dais,” Rumbaugh said.
Aides on both sides of the aisle say that some of the tension could ease after the election, though the divide over sequestration is likely to persist.
“We are to a large degree co-opted in a larger national debate over taxes and spending, and so it’s natural some of that plays out here,” one GOP aide said.