The loss of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday, represents a loss to several dedicated (and often unpopular) communities, including gun control advocates and environmentalists. The New Jersey Democrat was an aggressive supporter of Superfund – the federal program to clean up old toxic waste sites, an idea that seems almost quaint in the current anti-regulatory, anti-government spending environment. His advocacy on environmental matters will be missed.
But Lautenberg was also the last sitting senator who was a World War II veteran, and that loss is just as notable. It's not just sentimental, the loss of the last member of the Greatest Generation. It's a factor that has a marked impact on the functionality of the Senate itself.
Fewer and fewer members of Congress are veterans. As the Washington Post calculates, the Senate, which had 26 veterans as recently as the 1111th Congress which ended in early 2011, has since lost 12 of that group. Two more are retiring next year. And in the House, the Post notes, only 19 percent of members veterans who were on active duty in the military, the lowest percentage since World War II.
Some of the decline is rooted in positive developments – eras of peacetime meant that not every man over the age of 18 was signing up to go fight. And there are other reasons, including the elimination of the draft, which meant that those who had a number of professional options – and those who end up in Congress tend to be of that group – didn't choose a military career.
Congress is the worse for it – not because someone needs to serve in the military to prove allegiance to one's country, or to prove a dedication to the military itself. It's because the military provides the precise sort of training necessary to work in a volatile and diverse (well, more diverse than it used to be) environment like Capitol Hill. If a soldier from New York is in a foxhole with comrades from Alaska and Alabama, there's no room for regional or ethnic or partisan bickering. You either get along, or you all die.
Veterans also learn something more important: that public service, be it on the battlefield, in a classroom or in the halls of Congress, means putting aside your own ego for the greater good. It means working together for something that is bigger than all of you. There are sadly too many members now who seem to have no basic respect for the very institution in which they serve. With so many disparate opinions and approaches to government represented on Capitol Hill, the only way for lawmakers to reach agreement is to share a common sense that the institution of Congress is bigger and more important that they are, and will be around long after they are gone.
As a World War II veteran, Lautenberg got that. Congress would run better if more members learned that lesson, with or without battlefield experience.