WASHINGTON — In what is already shaping up to be a dramatic budget season in the United States, one more variable has emerged amid the shrinking spending plans, partisan bickering, threats of sequestration and the presidential election: congressional turnover.
Eleven lawmakers who serve on the congressional defense committees or are leaders on defense issues have decided to retire, and at least a dozen others are in tight races to keep their seats in Congress or have lost in the primaries.
These personnel changes could add to the chaos in which important budget decisions must be made this winter, defense lobbyists and industry officials said.
“This is not normal,” one lobbyist said. “This amount of change is definitely unusual.”
Those invested in defense issues are watching a number of congressional races closely and preparing for a Congress absent the lawmakers who have protected defense spending and shaped policy for years.
“When you add the pending personnel changes to all of the other uncertainties concerning budget cuts, debt extension and spending priorities, it looks like a fairly chaotic situation,” Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said. “There is a lot of turnover going on and it just complicates all of the planning needs of the military services and of industry.”
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, is retiring, along with a number of other defense heavyweights, including Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.); Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.); and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn).
This year’s departures contribute to a growing leadership vacuum when it comes to defense issues, one industry source said. “Everyone’s looking for a champion and the champions are leaving.”
It began four years ago with the retirement of John Warner, a Republican from Virginia and former Navy secretary, who served in the Senate for 20 years. Then, a number of lost re-election bids began to deplete the old guard.
Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee from 1997 to 2005, lost his seat in 2008 after getting caught up in a corruption scandal.
In February 2010, congressional powerhouse Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), died, leaving enormous shoes to fill on the House Appropriations Committee.
Finally, a number of longstanding members of the House Armed Services Committee were defeated in the 2010 elections, including Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), and long-serving committee chair Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).
“Those are the lions of defense,” one industry source said. “Those were the people who understood it. There are good people still left, but there aren’t as many, and it’s going to be a huge education process to get a number of these people up to speed.”
Still, while some see an exodus of defense leaders on Capitol Hill, others are heartened by the enthusiasm of the younger guard that is replacing them.
“No one is irreplaceable,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general, former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and current member of the Defense Business Board. “Any organization needs new blood.”
Several of Capitol Hill’s defense players are fighting to keep their seats in Congress.
In Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican who leads the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, is in a tight Senate primary race that will be decided Aug. 7. Whoever wins will take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Her Republican colleague on the committee, Sen. Scott Brown, is also facing a fierce election fight in Massachusetts, where he faces Elizabeth Warren.
On the House side, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), is fighting to keep his seat. He serves as chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee.
If Bartlett and Akin lose, “there will be a huge shuffle of subcommittee chairs,” one defense lobbyist said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, lost his primary race in El Paso on May 19. With Fort Bliss in his district, he has been an advocate for the Army and its modernization programs.
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), an increasingly powerful player on the House Appropriations Committee, is also fighting to keep his seat in an election where incumbents are being targeted by outside groups. With Dicks stepping down as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Moran is one of several names mentioned as a possible replacement.
Many view Dicks’ decision to retire as a clear acknowledgement that the Democrats will be unable to win back control of the House in November.
His departure “is a very significant change,” the defense lobbyist said. “The Democrats have lost their two top defense leaders in Murtha and Dicks.”
Now, there are not many people emerging who are as plugged in with the Democratic Party’s leadership, which makes it more challenging for the defense agenda to get passed, the lobbyist said.
Congress watchers say it is too soon to tell who might replace Dicks on the defense appropriations subcommittee and as ranking member on the full committee.
Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), is in line to inherit the defense subcommittee, but that is “far from a done deal,” the lobbyist said.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who just won a hard-fought Democratic primary in Ohio, is in line to take the ranking member seat on the full committee, but it is not clear yet that she would get it.
It could come down to Kaptur; Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.); and possibly Moran, the lobbyist said. “Currently, Lowey is viewed as the smart money bet to take over the Democrat’s top seat on the full committee.”
On the Republican side, it is not clear whether Rep. C.W. Bill Young, (R-Fla.), will get another waiver to keep his job as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee.
Outside of the defense committees, but relevant to arms sales and export control issues, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), lost his primary, putting his leadership role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee up for grabs.
According to sources, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is also stepping down after reaching the end of her term limit.
Regardless of the outcome of the congressional races, the Senate Armed Services Committee is going to lose a number of its members due to retirements.
There will be four, but possibly six or more, new members on the committee in the next Congress, according to Byron Callan, a senior defense analyst at Capital Alpha Partners.
Along with Lieberman and Webb, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), have announced plans to retire.
There could also be changes at the top of the committee.
If Republicans remain in the minority in the Senate, several sources said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would cede his role as ranking member to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), because McCain’s term limit would be up.
However, if Republicans manage to win back the Senate, it is widely believed that McCain would become the committee chairman.
Industry views the two men very differently, seeing Inhofe as far more friendly to their needs, the lobbyist said.
McCain is a vocal critic of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, often citing it as an example of the Defense Department’s uncontrollable cost overruns and mismanagement.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) — who is not on the committee but is the Senate’s biggest advocate for missile defense spending and the strongest opponent to nuclear weapons reductions — also is leaving. For missile defense advocates, Kyl’s absence is going to be felt.
“I would hope someone is going to pick up that mantle,” the lobbyist said, noting there are no obvious successors in the Senate yet.
“Someone will step in and be the voice, but it’s not apparent who right now,” an industry official said.
With all of these departures, new people have the opportunity to step in and take on new roles.
For example, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), has stepped in and tried to get up to speed quickly, one industry official said. “That’s encouraging, but it takes time.”
Others point to Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), both new members on the Senate Armed Services Committee, as quick studies on defense issues, asking smart questions during hearings.
“Do I lay awake at night worrying who is going to step in and how quickly they’re going to get up to speed? Yeah, but there is going to be somebody,” the industry official said.