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Veterans in Congress at lowest level since World War II

By Jennifer Rizzo, CNN
  • 115 members of the new Congress -- 20% -- have served in the military
  • In 1975, 70% of the members of Congress were veterans
  • President's top military adviser concerned about a disconnect between military and civilians

Washington (CNN) -- Members of Congress are quick to say they support the troops and veterans, but the number of elected officials who have served has plummeted to its lowest point since World War II.

Only 20% of the 535 members of the new Congress have served in the military, 25 from the Senate and 90 from the House of Representatives.

Juxtapose that with 1975, when more than 70% of those elected had served in the armed forces.

Pre-World War II data on veterans serving is difficult to find, according to the Senate Historical Office.

With the nation facing two wars, one group worries about the effects the dwindling numbers may have on defense decisions.

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"It's not always that veterans care more about defense issues, but those politicians who have served in the military understand to a much greater degree what they are voting on," said Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, a group that trains veterans to run for public office.

"Having members in Congress with military experience is crucial to effective civilian control of the military."

Today, some of the most prominent voices on military, foreign affairs and veterans issues are themselves veterans. Among them are Vietnam vets Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years; John Kerry, D-Massachusetts; and Jim Webb, D-Virginia.

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, is in the National Guard and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, is in the Air Force Reserves. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Despite the continuous drop in the number of veterans elected to Congress, funding for veterans' issues has not taken a hit. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget went up 16% in 2010, the largest single-year increase in more than 30 years, according to the department. The defense budget also has grown considerably in the last decade.

"Over the past four years, Congress has elevated priorities and expanded benefits and services to all U.S. veterans to the highest levels in quality and funding in our country's history," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "I believe that Congress will continue to hold veterans' issues and needs at the forefront even with a reduction of congressional members who are veterans."

A government expert who studies Congress said a concern such as Lynn's dates back to the country's founding fathers.

"What this reflects is a classic debate of descriptive representation, meaning do I need a person that is a member of my group to adequately represent my views in Congress," said Michele Swers, an associate professor at Georgetown University.

Swers said she believes where this matters most is in a party's ability to sway public opinion and gain credibility on its proposals -- for example, the opinion of a doctor in Congress on the health care debate may hold more weight with the public.

President Barack Obama's top military adviser voiced concerns recently about what he sees as a disconnect between the civilian and military worlds, saying most Americans know "precious little" about the military and the military needs to work harder to justify itself to the public.

"To the degree we are out of touch, I believe it is a very dangerous force," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a conference on military professionalism last week.

The loss of veterans in Congress may be attributed in part to the end of the draft system in 1973, according to the Congressional Research Service, but Lynn's group said there is more to the drop-off than just a decline in the number of vets in the population

"The cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed, especially with the need to buy TV commercials, and that creates a barrier of entry to people coming out of the military (who) don't have the financial ability that others in different professions have," said Lynn, whose group is trying turn the decline around.

The group also said the increased partisanship in Congress is a turnoff for veterans.

"Military members have served overseas and seen that the enemy is the guy at the end of the battlefield, not the guy on the other end of the aisle," Lynn said.