Is military service still relevant when running for office?

Number of veterans in Congress on the decline

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Earlier this week, 91-year-old Ralph Hall (R-Tex) was defeated in a primary run-off. After 17 consecutive terms in the U.S. House, Hill will be the last member of Congress to have served in World War II. (Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., is also a WWII vet, but announced his plans to retire earlier this year.)

Hall’s departure marks a downward trend of veterans running for and winning seats on Capitol Hill.  The current Congress has the least number of veterans since WWII.

Currently about 20 percent of members in both the House of Representatives and the Senate are veterans.

But it wasn’t that long ago that military service was practically a requirement for electability. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, in the 95th Congress, the time period between 1977 and 1978, 77 percent of the members had a military service record.

But today, as less people are joining the military and more veterans of previous wars continue to age, fewer political candidates have a military record.

In fact, the number of members of Congress who have served has been on a decline for the last 40 years.


Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center


Much of that can be attributed to the shift in military service across the country. The Pentagon is slashing its military budget which means it has less of a need for troops. According to a 2012 Pew Study, less than a single percent of today’s American population has served in active duty in the last decade. That’s a big departure from the WWII era, where 9 percent of the population was enlisted.

Also noteworthy, members of Congress have historically had a higher proportion of veterans than the general population.


Source: Congressional Research Service


The fewer number of military enlistees is affecting the make-up of political candidates. Military participation in the US population is also falling, according to the Pew Research Center. If you look at the chart below by Pew, you’ll see that the percent of the total U.S. population that was enlisted in the last 70 years has rapidly decreased.


Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center


It’s hard to tell why military service is less important for membership to the Capitol Hill club today than it was decades ago. Tim Hsia writing for the New York Times surmises that it’s due to the population’s disengagement with the military—so promoting your military record doesn’t grant a candidate the same edge.

“The interplay between politics, the military and veterans is a complicated subject matter. Although war is supposed to be an extension of politics, we don’t want service members associated with politics,” said Hsia.

But that doesn’t mean that veterans in Congress are a thing of the past. As those who serve in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars come of age, it’s likely that they will reverse the trend if they chose to enter politics.



Print this article Back to Top

DecodeDC's Mission

DecodeDC's foremost aim is to be useful. That means being a reliable, honest and highly entertaining source of insight and explanation. It also means providing multimedia coverage of Washington's people, culture, policies and politics that is enlightening and enjoyable. Whether it's a podcast, a video, an interactive graphic, a short story or a long analysis, it will be based on this guiding principle: We are in DC but not OF DC.