OnWatch is a quarterly newsletter of the Fleet Reserve
January 8, 2019
116th Congress Begins
There has been a power shift in Congress as the 116th Congress began on January 3rd, with Democrats in control of the House and Republicans in control of both the Senate and White House. This means that Democrats will Chair committees in the House and decided legislative priorities. This becomes important to active duty, veterans, retirees and their families because the new leadership will decide which issues will come up for a vote. With a divided Congress, it may become more difficult to pass any legislation. A change has also occurred in the number of veterans serving in Congress.
There are now seven fewer members of Congress who are also veterans, which is significant because of the loss of military institutional knowledge about life style and hardships that are not experienced in other career fields. At the beginning of the 116th Congress, 18 percent of its members will have military experience. There has been a steady decline from the high point in 1971, where 71 percent of Congress had served in the military. The breakdown of veterans in the new Congress is as follows, 30 Democrats, 65 Republicans with 19 being part of the freshman class. There will be 18 veterans serving in the Senate while 77 will serve in the House. There are 47 who served in the military after 2000, 21 served during the 1960s and four served during the 1950s. There will be 6 female veterans, which is the largest number to date of female veterans in Congress.
50 served in the Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard.
17 served in the Marine Corps or Marine Corps Reserve.
16 served in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard.
13 served in the Navy or Naval Reserve.
1 served in the Coast Guard.
In total 95 veterans will serve in the 116th Congress (two Congressmen served two different branches).
How the new members will influence Congress, obviously, has yet to be determined, but it is highly likely that some will sit on important committees and subcommittees that will directly impact active duty service members. Congressman Mark Takano (Calif.) is now the House Veterans Affairs Chairman and Congressman Adam Smith (Wash.) is the House Armed Services Chairman. Neither will be new to their committees, however, neither has ever served in the military.
In the November 2018 issue of Navy Times, there was an article about military recruitment. It said, “The most recent internal Defense Department surveys conducted in late 2017, show the percentage of young people who say they will likely join the military is at 11 percent – the lowest point in nearly 10 years.” The article also included comments about the army failing to meets its recruitment goal by 6,500. With the Navy and Marine Corps having a higher recruitment goal than in the past, finding qualified individuals who want to serve is a real challenge. The Navy is trying to increase the number of ships it has in its fleet and it needs additional sailors to man those ships. In the Navy, a little more than 38,000 graduated boot camp in 2018. With the need to seek high quality recruits in critical specialties such as cyber warfare, nuclear fields, aviation and others, it is essential for the Navy of the future to keep these sailors in these fields for their entire careers.
Recruiting men and women for the military in these specialty fields have many secondary consequences. These specialty jobs tend to pay significantly more in the civilian sector so the temptation to leave the military after the term of enlistment ends is quite high. This will add to the pressure on recruiters to continually find high-quality people willing to serve. Another aspect that could make recruitment more difficult is the blended retirement system (BRS). The BRS, which took full effect January 1, 2018, allows those who do not serve twenty or more years to leave the military with at least some kind of portable retirement benefit they can access at age 59 1/2. The BRS, however, beneficial it is to those who leave before twenty years, could have a significant impact on end strength goals that Congress sets.
Under the new system, service members who serve 20 or more years will earn a smaller benefit than those under the previous system. Service members who joined between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2017, had the option to choose between the old system or the BRS. Only 13 percent of eligible service members signed up for the BRS before January 1. It will be years before the BRS can be accurately judged as a success or not, but if it is not a success then the Navy, Marine Corps and the other military branches will spend years recovering from the recruitment issues they will undoubtedly face.
The FRA believes that what Congress gives, Congress can take away. The 116th Congress could face significant deadlock due to opposing ideology in the House and Senate, even if Defense Personnel issues tend to be less partisan. The BRS was touted as a major success but the long term effects it will have on military recruitment and sustainability have not yet been fully realized. Congress may need to act sometime in the near future and those in Congress who have military experience will be in the best position to make the best decisions for service members.
OnWatch is a quarterly news update for active duty and Reserve personnel, written by Brian Condon. He served four years on Active Duty in the Marine Corps. Condon began his career with the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA), as Assistant Director of Veterans Programs on October 2015. He is committed to FRA's mission to maintain and improve the quality of life for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel and their families. You can reach Brian directly on any of FRA's advocacy issues at BrianC@fra.org