WASHINGTON — When the new Congress is seated later this month, it will boast the largest number of Iraq War veterans ever, but will have a lower overall number of members who’ve served in the military.
Veterans groups and the new slate of lawmakers hope that the influx of younger veterans — eight House members and two Senators, all Republicans, have served in Iraq — will help bring a new perspective to the legislative session, helping keep the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan even as financial reform issues dominate the headlines.
“I think you’ll see the House Armed Services Committee become more of a war committee than it has been in the last few years,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served with the Marines in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We need to be more focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. And we need to make the military a leaner, meaner fighting machine.”
Hunter and Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman are the only two returning Iraq veterans in the House, but they’ll be joined by six freshman lawmakers with current war experience, including three who’ve been appointed to the House Armed Services Committee.
“If you’ve been in the military, you can take policy proposals and think about how that change is going to play out, not from an academic standpoint but from an experience standpoint,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., one of those three newcomers and a major in the Army Reserve.
“It helps to understand what troops go through, what families go through on deployment. As someone who is still talking to those troops, that’s a perspective that can help across the board.”
Fellow freshman committee member Florida Rep. Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said he hopes to spearhead efforts to review the military’s rules of engagement in Afghanistan as soon as the new legislative session begins, calling some of the restrictions on battlefield troops unfair and unsafe.
“With some of the rules we’ve placed on them, we might as well start handing out traffic tickets at the Daytona 500,” he said. “I’ll push for oversight hearings on that right away, because we need to listen to the complaints of the troops on the ground.”
Griffin, a former U.S. attorney and White House aide, said he doesn’t have immediate plans for new legislation or specific topics on the committee, but instead hopes to study the process and see where his background can help guide the debate.
The percentage of veterans in the House of Representatives has dropped steadily since the 1970s, and only 87 of the chamber’s 435 lawmakers for the 112th Congress have served on active-duty or in the reserves.
West said those statistics make it even more important to “have people there who have been on the ground, and can bring that technical knowledge back to Congress.”
The House will be losing its best known Iraq veteran next session. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., a former soldier and outspoken critic of the Iraq War, was one of two Democratic Iraq veterans defeated in November’s election.
Hunter said even though the remaining recent war veterans are all Republicans, their aim isn’t partisan.
“It’s always important to have those voices of the troops in Congress, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” he said. “The goal is to protect this country and project our power. So it’s great to have those who have fought overseas in Congress.”