By JUANA SUMMERS AND AUSTIN WRIGHT
The defense industry’s glory days on Capitol Hill are coming to an end.
The last year has been a tough one for some of the industry’s stalwarts. In December, the defense establishment lost Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a Medal of Honor recipient who then chaired both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense.
Just last month Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, died. And a few days later, former Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a long-time leader of the House Armed Services Committee, died nearly three years after he was defeated for reelection.
Still ahead is the pending retirement of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has announced he’s not seeking reelection next year.
“It really is the end of an era,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist who was a spokesman for then-Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a long-serving chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Interviews with more than a half-dozen industry insiders and former congressional aides found similar sentiments.
Loren Thompson, who directs the Lexington Institute, called it “a new world for the defense industry on Capitol Hill.” And Powell Moore, an assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, agreed.
“The level of support for the Defense Department and our national security that you got from those leaders is going to be difficult to duplicate,” Moore said.
The consequences of the defense brain drain are still unfolding. But they could be a gut punch to an industry already hard hit by sequestration and general budget tightening, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Calling the shift a “startling and rapid descent of knowledge by sitting members of Congress,” Eaglen told POLITICO there’s “no doubt that this has significant short- and long-term consequences for the defense industrial base,” the Pentagon and the military.
“The Pentagon is already seeing the effects of this diminishing bloc of members. They are no longer large enough to sway major votes in one direction or another. This means that leadership has to put defense farther back in the long line of issues to prioritize,” Eaglen said. “Further, this hurts the committees of jurisdiction, particularly the authorizers. Their influence and status are at risk.”
For the first time, there are no longer any World War II veterans in the Senate. The last — Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) — died in June.
“We’re seeing sort of the passing of a generation, the passage of a torch in a very real sense,” said Dan Stohr, a spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association. “When Sen. Inouye died, that was a tremendous loss of a person who had served in the military for a very long time and then had served both in Congress and in the Senate for a very long time.”
And Moore, who left the Defense Department in 2004, also noted the dwindling ranks of military experience in Congress. “Experience matters in any endeavor,” he said.
The void is likely to remain, as the candidates running to replace some of the defense giants, are not steeped in military affairs.
In Florida’s 13th Congressional District, Young’s former general counsel, David Jolly, has entered the race to succeed the late congressman with the support of Young’s widow, Beverly Young, who has cultivated a reputation as an outspoken veterans’ advocate but has decided not to seek the seat herself.
The primary for that special election, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has announced, will be on Jan. 14, with the general election following on March 11.
Joe Marino, the head of the Florida Defense Contractors Association, said that while his group doesn’t delve into politics, its members say the uncertainty created with the shifting dynamics in Congress is akin to the pain they feel from sequestration and the series of continuing resolutions that has funded government recently.
“From an industry standpoint, we’re just concerned mostly with the now additional level of uncertainty, with regards to leadership and all the changes that are happening up in D.C.,” he said. “It adds to the level of uncertainty. Any business trying to make business decisions about the future, uncertainty is the poison pill because it’s very hard to obviously predict what certain decisions may impact that particular business whether they’re small, medium or large.”
In Michigan, where Levin in not running again, the race is now between Democratic Rep. Gary Peters and former Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, neither with significant defense ties.