On Hill, an exodus of defense champions

The defense industry is grappling with an exodus of its biggest advocates in Congress.

The retirement announcements this week of House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranThe Hill's Top Lobbyists 2020 Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report MORE (D-Va.) added two more members to the list of longtime champions of the military and defense industry who will no longer be serving.

Their departures mark the end of an era for a generation of defense-minded lawmakers — and constitute a significant challenge for those who will take their places amid the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

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“We’re seeing a fundamental turnover, except there is no one on the other side,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Individually, the members who have moved up and are about to take positions of leadership — for example, possibly Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Senate punts on defense bill Warren calls for Senate probe of 2019 Syrian airstrike that killed dozens of civilians Standoff scraps quick deal on Senate defense bill before Thanksgiving MORE (D-R.I.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) — are in the tradition of that older generation. But collectively, the hemorrhaging of this group is significant.”

In 2015, all four defense committees will have chairman with two years of experience or less, a stark sign of the turnover in Congress that is reaching beyond the defense world.

There will be new chairmen for both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees as McKeon and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden pays tribute to late Sen. Levin: 'Embodied the best of who we are' Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm dead at 85 MORE (D-Mich.) are retiring at the end of 2014.

The Defense Appropriations subcommittee chairs, Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.), took over in 2013 following the deaths of longtime appropriators Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.).

This year’s departures have added to a changing of the guard that stretches back over the past five years, as lawmakers like Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), John Murtha (D-Pa.), Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Sens. John Warner (R-Va) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) either lost reelection, retired or died.

“It is a fairly lengthy list of people who collectively had literally centuries of experience on the Hill when you take them all in total,” said Dan Stohr of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a leading defense trade association.

The turnover comes at a time when the Pentagon and defense industry are facing deep budget uncertainty due to sequestration.

The defense committees themselves are less powerful in today’s Congress where much of the power is consolidated in the leadership offices and the committee process has largely broken down.

Congress has also seen its number of military veterans dwindle, which is a natural recruiting pool for the defense industry and defense committees.

The disappearance of earmarks, meanwhile, has made it more difficult to get lawmakers interested in defense, industry officials say.

“If John Murtha was still around, we’d still have earmarks probably, and we wouldn’t have sequester,” said one defense lobbyist. “He was a very forceful leader, and had that relationship with the leadership that the others don’t have.”

Last month’s budget deal that provided the Pentagon $31 billion in relief from sequester, has injected a dose of optimism into the defense industry and lawmakers like McKeon about a return to regular order.

But six years of sequestration still loom on the horizon after 2015, and the budget deal still skirted tackling the major debt issues like social security, taxes and Medicare.

While those taking over the committees won’t have comparable experience, they will still be expected to tackle the challenges.

Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general and former Senate Armed Services staff director, said the latest turnover follows a cycle that plays out roughly once a decade.

“While you never want to see the people with the kind of expertise and leadership of the four [defense committee chairmen] move on, it’s happened three or four times before in last 40 years,” Punaro said. “Change is inevitable, and there will be others that come behind them that will measure up, just like they did.”

Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOn steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency Schumer strikes deal with House, dropping push to link China, defense bills MORE (D-Wash), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has seen the turnover first hand.

Smith took over for Skelton on the Armed Services panel in 2011, and then became the top defense lawmaker for Washington state last year when Dicks retired.

“When Norm Dicks called me up and told me he wasn’t running again two years ago, I said, ‘You can’t do that,’ Smith told The Hill.

Smith said Dicks reminded him that Washington’s old lions of the Senate, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnusen, were also once seen as irreplaceable.

“He said look, way back when we had Scoop and Maggie as our senators, and we said you could never possibly replace them,” Smith said. “There are always other people who are going to step up, and that’s what has to happen.”