Most Memorial Day mentions in Congress come from non-veterans


Memorial Day routinely brings beach traffic and barbecues and, in Congress, a spike in mentions of the holiday established to honor America's fallen fighters, as you can see above in the illustration from Capitol Words

But of the lawmakers who have mentioned Memorial Day most during the last 16 years, according to the Sunlight Foundation's tool for tracking the frequency of terms in the Congressional Record, none are active-duty veterans. Only one of the top ten, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has logged any time in the military. The East Texas congressman served six years in the Air Force Reserve. Three members of the top ten have served as Senate leaders, who often used the term "Memorial Day" in a procedural context, admonishing members of what they could or should do before Congress' traditional Memorial Day recess.

That appears to highlight the diminishing role of veterans in post-World War, post-military draft America — a trend that's reflected in their declining numbers in the national legislature. According to Joe Davis of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the percentage of veterans in Congress reached a modern-day peak in 1970, when 75 percent of the members had served in the military. Fewer than 22 percent of the current members of Congress are veterans, according to a profile of the 112th Congress by the Congressional Research Service.  According to that profile, the average age in the Senate is 62 and the average age in the House is 57, meaning that most members of Congress would have reached the age of 18 — when American males have to register with the Selective Service — during the height of the unpopular Vietnam War, a conflict that some well-known politicians infamously avoided.

Another factor may be psychological. Notably absent from our list of Memorial Day mentioners are the members of Congress for whom the holiday undoubtedly holds the most personal resonance: Congress' combat veterans, such as Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. 

"Military veterans for the most part — especially people who have seen war — they don't talk about it," says the VFW's Davis.

Non-military veterans who mention Memorial Day most are: Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Among veterans' groups, the most active lobbying organization is the Disabled American Veterans, which Sunflight's Influence Explorer records as having spent $7.6 million pressing Congress on bills focused mainly on health care and other benefits for wounded warriors. The VFW has been the most active campaign giver. Since 1990, according to Influence Explorer, the VFW has given $1.1 million to political candidates, divided almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats.