Military service and Congress

 Image source:  WaPo

Image source: WaPo

By Marian Currinder

Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Since 9/11, every part of the country has lost soldiers to war, but some regions have suffered disproportionate losses. According to a recent Axios analysis, the Bible Belt, the Rust Belt, and the Midwest have suffered the most military deaths in proportion to their populations. Many of the fallen came from big cities, but plenty also hailed from small towns. And Vermont lost more service members in proportion to its population than any other state.

For members of Congress, the Memorial Day recess is a time to honor fallen service members, meet with constituents, and, of course, campaign for reelection. This year, more members are competing against military veterans than in the recent past; indeed, over 300 former service members are running (or have run) in the 2018 midterms. Currently, just 20-percent of senators and 19-percent of House members are veterans. Forty years ago, veterans comprised 81-percent of the Senate and 75-percent of the House.

What might an influx of veterans mean for Congress? Leadership and a desire to continue serving the country are themes that resonate across the campaigns of former service members running this year. Some suggest that veterans are more willing to work in a bipartisan fashion because their shared military experience emphasizes mutual respect and working together to get the job done. By this logic, more veterans serving in Congress should lead to decreased polarization in Congress. This makes sense intuitively, as polarization in Congress has increased as the number of veterans serving has decreased.

So, if the 2018 elections bring us more veterans, might we see less polarization in the 116th Congress?  Probably not. In a previous LegBranch.com post, College of Charleston political scientists Jordan Ragusa and Chris Day tested this theory using roll call vote records and found that military service has no statistically significant effect on polarization in Congress. Members tend to vote with their parties, regardless of their veteran status. This finding might, however, tell us more about the kind of bills that are brought to the floor for votes these days than about individual member preferences. We don’t know if members support bipartisan bills if those bills aren’t brought to the floor.

Joshua Huder’s recent LegBranch.com post argues that the one fundamental power congressional leaders have is to prevent votes. If leaders don’t want a bill on the floor, they will use their “negative agenda control” to block it. Huder also notes that more recently, members have started using procedural mechanisms to challenge leadership control over what comes to the floor. The willingness to use these mechanisms also indicates that congressional parties aren’t as unified as polarization narratives suggest.

Whether such challenges are insignificant blips on the congressional radar or signal greater unrest among members remains to be seen. But a large influx of new members who share common experiences (like military service) and goals (working together to get things done) might, however, tip the scales toward eventual institutional change, a la the “Watergate Babies” who discovered they couldn’t get anything done unless they first changed the system for getting things done. As Richard Ojeda, a Democrat war veteran running for a House seat in West Virginia said, "I'm not going to let somebody claim to be a leader when they don't even have no sense of what that word means. And that's why I got into this."

Marian Currinder is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute’s Governance Project and editor of the LegBranch.com blog.