The Decline of the Senate Armed Services Committee

State of the Union update is near. In the meantime, this dispatch from Charles Stevenson, a long-time Senate staffer, former professor at the National War College, and author of a standard text on the job of the secretary of defense. He is referring to the polarization, grandstanding, and threats of filibuster that have emerged over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as SecDef:

I despair. I worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee for ten years and have followed it closely ever since. We had big fights - over Vietnam, ending the draft, the B-1 bomber and MX missile - but members always recognized that they needed to compromise in order to pass a defense authorization bill, which the committee has now done for an amazing 51 years in a row.

My bosses sometimes put holds on nominations in order to get more information from the executive branch, and we even threatened filibusters a couple of times. But nobody abused those tactics. Sometimes the committee even voted against a presidential nominee, but still reported the nomination to let the full Senate decide - by simple majority vote. SASC members always put the institution ahead of party or politics.

The one glaring exception to that committee comity was over John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense. But the opposition to the former SASC chairman was bipartisan, over moral and character issues, and not to embarrass the president or fight administration policy. The SASC voted 11-9 to reject the Tower nomination but still sent it to the floor, where the Senate voted it down 47-53. No filibuster, just a simple majority vote. [JF note: to be clear, 53 members of the Senate, an absolute majority, voted against Tower. This wasn't like what we've become accustomed to and is in prospect in the Hagel case: a 40-something vote minority blocking the nomination by filibuster or other procedural obstacle.]

The behavior of some of the new members on the Hagel nomination is way over the line - disgraceful! They show no respect for the institution and are likely to poison its ability to work in a collaborative way. They are also hurting the institution of the office of Secretary of Defense and thus undermining our system of civilian control.

I still want to reserve the filibuster for rare and special cases, but the Hagel opponents are making it harder for us defenders of the Senate's unique character to support our own case