WASHINGTON — The US House Armed Services Committee faces a shake-up in the Nov. 8 election that will affect defense policy and dollars. Aside from any additional members possibly voted out of office, the committee is sure to lose 10 members, including the chairmen of the Seapower and Military Personnel subcommittees.
The vacancies, depending on how they are filled, could open up other posts and opportunities for lawmakers. While House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, plans to get through elections and negotiations over the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act first, according to staffers, there has been some conjecture about which lawmakers are in the running.
Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., was unseated in the Republican primary after redistricting altered his district and he ran in an adjacent one. That may potentially set off a domino effect of open subcommittee chairs. Forbes has championed a 350-ship Navy as the chairman and lately as an adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign; his successor will have to decide whether to carry that torch, too.
Though the committee is losing a number of veteran legislators, Thornberry will have a handful of veteran service members with field experience from recent wars. "There is no substitute for the enthusiasm and wisdom that is coming up from the lower tiers," a senior committee aide said.
Heritage Foundation defense analyst Justin Johnson said Forbes will be missed as a proponent of naval expansion who placed broader issues ahead of parochialism. "He's a thought leader among HASC Republicans," Johnson said.
Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., has confirmed he is interested in the Seapower chairmanship. Rumored candidates also include Seapower members Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Bradley Byrne, R-Ala.
Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran who represents the massive military bases on the southernmost coast of California, has been on the committee since 2010, and Byrne, a champion of the littoral combat ship, has been on the committee since 2014.
Wittman has served on the committee since 2008, possibly giving him an edge. His district, VA-1, is noted for its strong presence of military institutions, including the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Marine Corps Base Quantico and Fort A.P. Hill. Newport News, Hampton Roads, Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base are nearby but outside the district.
"My experience is seniority is a factor, and other factors could be disqualifying," Johnson said. "If you're not being a team player on the campaign trail, that can be a negative mark. As long as you're doing your part, it's seniority. My thought is Wittman would have the upper hand, but I'm not in the room."
What's unclear is the role Wittman's intentions to run for governor of Virginia will play in Thornberry's decision. Wittman has reportedly launched a political action committee as a first step in a campaign for the Republican nomination for Virginia governor.
While Hunter has shown a more aggressive style, pressing military officials over a controversial intelligence system — the Distributed Common Ground System-Army — Wittman "is more methodical, with the Virginia gentleman attitude," Johnson said. "There's a big stylistic difference … and it is up to leadership which style they prefer."
Hunter has also endorsed Trump, who clashed with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., after Ryan rescinded his endorsement. It is unclear what those endorsements will mean, for good or ill, after the election.
If Wittman is tapped and vacates the Readiness Subcommittee chair, one contender for his job is Rep. Vicky Hartzler. If tapped, she would leave the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee chair vacant. Hartzler, R-Mo., has served on the HASC since 2011.
The subcommittee does not produce a subcommittee mark and does not have legislative authority — but it has a tradition of digging into the nitty-gritty of defense acquisition policy problems.
Readiness shortfalls have been an obvious, urgent agenda item for Thornberry. He recently pointed to a lack of training in a crash of two CH-53 helicopters that killed 12 Marines, among other air accidents, as cause for alarm and increased defense funding.
"The Obama administration's legacy will be framed by their decision to play political games with defense funding, rather than facing these problems head-on and working with Congress to fix them," Thornberry said in an Oct. 27 release. "These challenges were years in the making and will take years to correct. It is time to stop playing games and get to fixing these problems immediately."
Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., is leaving the House to run for the seat of retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., leaving a race for his seat. Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve and a physician, has fought to roll back Obama administration troop cuts.
It's uncertain who would take over the Military Personnel Subcommittee, but staffers are laying odds it could go to one of the committee's veterans.
The subcommittee is the most direct path to helping ground troops, but it has the heaviest workload and generates the most paper in the process of drafting the annual defense authorization bill — and its jurisdiction is the most politically contentious.
After the election, the Republican Conference — should the GOP retain control of the House, as polls suggest — is expected to select committee chairs and vice chairs. Seniority on a given committee and not overall seniority is the determining factor for handing out chairmanships, Johnson said.
House rules require the House Armed Services chairman to formally announce his or her process for filling vacancies, expected after the election. But because the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is unresolved, it's unlikely Thornberry will focus on the matter until the bill is done.
While there's no set deadline, the expectation is that Thornberry will announce how he will fill those in December. Any new chairmen would be seated after the new Congress is seated next year.