Elections Alter Membership of Key Committees

By Elizabeth Book

Next month’s elections will not only result in a new president, but key races across the country also will change the makeup of the armed services committees in both houses of Congress.

In addition to the presidency and countless state and local offices, all of the seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the seats in the Senate are up for grabs. For the defense community, two of these congressional races are significant.

One of the most contested Senate races is for the Virginia seat currently held by Democrat Chuck Robb. He is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he is minority leader of the readiness subcommittee. Robb served in Vietnam and is a 34-year veteran of the Marine Corps Reserves. He is also the son-in-law of the late President Lyndon Johnson. But he now is engaged in a fight for his political life against former Gov. George Allen, a Republican. Allen is the son of a late coach of the Washington Redskins football team.

Since Virginia has a high percentage of military families and houses numerous military outposts, both candidates are working hard to win the votes of the defense community.

Allen, in a recent speech before the American Legion, pledged to be a consistent and strong voice for the U.S. armed services, which he claimed are underfunded. “Our military has been cut to near the bone and stretched to near its limit,” he said. “Our men and women in uniform are underpaid. Our military itself is undermanned.”

Allen attacked Robb for his record of supporting President Clinton’s downsizing of the armed forces, noting that Robb opposed the 2000 Defense Appropriations Conference Report, which included a 4.8 percent military pay increase. Allen has called for higher procurement spending levels. He is a strong advocate of a national missile defense system.

Robb also has called for increases in the defense budget. He has supported legislative “firewalls” to protect defense spending from being used for non-defense programs. Robb also supports fresh approaches to defense spending, calling for “a major restructuring of the military, to include a new ‘cyclical’ approach to readiness ...” This, he said, “could free up billions of defense dollars for force modernization, while retaining the capability to fight.”

Since Allen declared his candidacy, the Virginia Senate race has been considered by many to be a toss-up. This is because in 1994, Robb won only 46 percent of the vote, barely beating the controversial Republican candidate Oliver North.

North, a former Reagan Administration National Security Council official, made headlines in 1985 when he became a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair. Though popular within the right wing of the Republican Party, North was unable to get a majority of his party’s vote. Allen, however, is staunchly supported by all factions of the Republican Party.

Also, Allen, who was term-limited out of the governorship in 1997, left office with soaring approval ratings. In fact, the latest poll, conducted by the Mason-Dixon Group, has Allen leading Robb by 10 percentage points.

In the House
The House Armed Services Committee is losing several members to retirement. Departing are John Kasich, R-Ohio; Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., and Owen Pickett, D-Va. Also resigning his House seat is James Talent, R-Mo., who is leaving to seek the post of governor of his home state. Herbert Bateman, R-Va., died in September.

Within the defense community, most eyes are on the race to succeed retiring Rep. Owen Pickett, D-Va. Most observers predict that the other seats on the committee will be won by the incumbent party.

However, Virginia’s 2nd district—home to the largest naval installation in the world, Norfolk—is increasingly friendly to Republicans, though Pickett has held the seat with little trouble for seven terms.

Rumors abound that Pickett may be retiring in part because of the candidacy of popular state Sen. Ed Schrock, a Republican who has strong support from his party’s leaders and the defense community. A retired U.S. Navy captain who has said he would focus his campaign on veterans’ issues, Schrock supports missile defense programs and increased defense spending.

Schrock’s opponent is political neophyte Jody Wagner, an attorney and community leader from Hampton Roads, Va., who has been guaranteed a seat on the House Armed Services Committee if she wins the election. In a letter signed by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Wagner was lauded for “her commitment to a strong national defense and to Hampton Roads, [which] will be well-served in Congress on the Armed Services Committee.” Gephardt and Hoyer guaranteed the committee assignment, regardless of which political party controls the house. But first, she must win.

Schrock’s campaign office claims that its polls have him beating Wagner by 20 percentage points. If elected, it is expected that Schrock would be offered Pickett’s post on the Armed Services, though no guarantee has been made to him by the Republican house leadership.

Elizabeth Book is a government policy analyst at the National Defense Industrial Association.

Topics: Government Collaboration, Government Policy, DOD Leadership

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