Women, the Military and the 116th Congress

Alexis Corn

These female veteran representatives will be fighting to find legislative successes in an arena with large party issues and personalities in play.

Contributions made by Madeline Wade and Abel Vandegrift

1992’s “The Year of the Woman” may have gained a second wind in 2018, as a record number of women ran for public office in this year’s midterm election. In the Senate, 23 women won their state primaries and 12 will be sworn into the 116th congressional session. In the House the effect was even greater, with 237 winning their primaries and at least 100 winning a seat in Congress.

Within this cadre are three newly elected congresswomen who have served in the military. These three additions double the number of female veterans in the House. These incoming members are:

Chrissy Houlahan, a Democratic candidate who beat Republican candidate Greg McCauley in Pennsylvania’s sixth congressional district. Houlahan served as a captain in the Air Force, serving on active duty for three years and on inactive reserve for 13 years.

Elaine Luria, a Democratic candidate, who served 20 years as a Surface Warfare Officer and nuclear engineer. She defeated Republican incumbent Representative Scott Taylor for the second congressional district in Virginia.

Mikie Sherrill, a Democratic candidate who defeated GOP candidate Jay Webber in New Jersey’s 11th congressional district election. Sherrill will take the seat over from sitting Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Sherrill is a Naval Academy graduate and spent almost 10 years on active duty in the Navy as a helicopter pilot.

These women join military and policy veterans Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and, if elected, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) (McSally, a sitting member of Congress, ran for the Senate and her race is too close to call), all women who have had an influence in defense, foreign and/or veterans’ issues. Sen. Ernst, the first female combat veteran elected to serve in the Senate, is the current chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services’ Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. This position enables her to craft provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on issues pertaining to weapons of mass destruction, homeland defense and special operations. First term Sen. Tammy Duckworth sits on the Senate Army Caucus and Congressional Veterans Jobs Caucus. She worked with Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to pass out of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee the Veterans Small Business Enhancement Act, a bill that adds veterans to the list of eligible recipients for federal surplus property.

Though these additional female veterans make up a sliver of people in Congress, their military service provides extra credence to become forces on veterans’, military and foreign affairs issues. Should these incoming members sit on the House Armed Services Committee they will be a vote in authorizing the NDAA, the annual bill that authorizes Department of Defense programs and select programs in the Department of Energy. Additionally, these freshmen members could sit on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, overseeing activities within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While each of these new members will craft specific policy stances during their time in Congress, each have carved out a political platform on a few issues. On her campaign website, Rep.-elect Houlahan describes her frustration over Congress’s inability to tackle issues such as military authorization and the U.S.’s propensity to use the military as a cudgel for foreign policy. Houlahan also seeks to ensure that veterans have the tools to smoothly transfer back into civilian life.

Sherrill dedicated sections of her campaign platform to her defense and veteran priorities. Emphasizing military matters from a foreign affairs perspective, Sherrill supports a fully-funded State Department and the containment of North Korea, Iran and ISIS. She argues that important national and international security issues can be resolved through partnering with American allies around the world, particularly Israel. In addition, Sherrill commits to working to improve care for veterans at the VA.

Unlike Sherrill and Houlahan, Luria does not emphasize defense, foreign policy or veterans’ affairs issues on her campaign platform. Instead, she reframes the security of the country in terms of domestic issues, such as Social Security protection, affordable healthcare, gun control, and environmental protection.

These female veteran representatives will be fighting to find legislative successes in an arena with large party issues and personalities in play. Likely gaining the gavel come January, House Armed Services Committee’s Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) has indicated that he will re-assert the committee’s oversight capabilities over the Department of Defense. This includes casting a more critical eye over U.S. military support for foreign conflicts, clandestine special operations abroad, war authorizations, the creation of a U.S. Space Force, and the nuclear weapons arsenal.

Democrats on the relevant defense committees will tie together an emphasis on defense oversight with the goal to reduce the defense budget. Reducing defense spending will largely take place in the House and Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittees, and the White House is expected to play a leading role. President Donald Trump has separately indicated his support for reducing spending at the Department of Defense and has asked the Department of Defense to cut its 2020 budget request by $33 billion.

If Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) succeeds in taking over the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, as is expected, the new chairman will push the committee to prioritize the cessation of veteran deportations, the creation of a more efficient citizenship process for immigrant members of the military, filling employment vacancies at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the protection of veterans from for-profit universities. Each of these ascending Democratic members of Congress will likely find commonality with Rep. Takano’s policy priorities and can help push for party wins that they can tout to constituents at home.

With Democrats in the majority in the House and Republicans continuing their hold on the gavel in the Senate, Congress may struggle to send non-essential pieces of legislation to the president. Yet, there are some avenues for opportunity, and Reps.-elect Houlahan, Luria and Sherrill will have the opportunity to contribute to meaningful policies in defense, national security and veterans’ affairs moving through the House, if they so choose.