As voters head to the polls Nov. 8 for the 2022 midterm elections, major potential changes to congressional power hang in the balance. For the Department of Defense—and the Air Force, in particular—here are meaningful shifts to watch for and new faces to track:
As the 2022 campaign has reached its final stages, the growing consensus among political handicappers is that control of the House of Representatives is very likely to flip from Democrats to Republicans. Data journalism site FiveThirtyEight’s model puts such a likelihood at 83 percent; The Economist’s model is at 78 percent; and Politico’s forecast is “likely Republican.”
By contrast, the Senate is wide open. FiveThirtyEight’s model favors the Republicans by a narrow 55-45 margin; The Economist’s is at 57-43; and Politico rates it as a “toss-up.”
Republicans winning control of one or both chambers would set up at least two years of battles between President Joe Biden’s White House and Congress.
On defense issues, in particular, Republicans have spent much of the past two years hammering Biden on multiple fronts. On spending, they have decried the Pentagon’s last two proposed budgets as insufficient, especially given rising inflation rates; added a sizable increase in fiscal 2022 funding; and are currently trying to do so again for 2023.
Some Democrats have actually endorsed those increases, as well, ensuring their passage even with Republicans in the minority. But if control flips, Republican lawmakers will likely have an easier time adding on to Biden’s budgets as they see fit.
That calculus could be complicated if Democrats hold on to the Senate, however, sparking more inter-chamber debate, especially if Democratic leaders remain committed to keeping the growth of defense spending down.
Aside from money, a change in control would also likely result in clashes between Congress and the White House over issues such as climate change, COVID-19, diversity and inclusion, and abortion—issues that administration officials have said are important to readiness, but which Republicans have frequently pushed back on, arguing that they are political and take focus off lethality.
Many such clashes would likely unfold in the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual policy bill that regularly attracts hundreds of amendments. This past year alone, lawmakers debated provisions that would have protected abortion access for service members, rolled back the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and limited diversity programs within DOD. Such amendments usually passed or failed along party-line votes.
Besides the NDAA, a Republican majority would have the ability to call hearings on issues that matter most to them. Pentagon officials and lawmakers have already had high-profile clashes over so-called “wokeness” in the military, and those could increase if Republicans have the ability to call hearings on the matter.
Finally, a switch in majority parties could mean a push toward more aggressive policies against China. House Republicans have pledged to establish a “Select Committee on China” if they take the majority, and the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), issued a statement after the release of the National Defense Strategy saying the U.S. needs to “rebuild our naval fleet to deter Chinese aggression towards Taiwan” and calling for the restart of the Nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile program, which the Biden administration canceled in its Nuclear Posture Review.
Key Air Force Changes
The relaunch of the SLCM-N would likely be the biggest change between parties when it comes to the nuclear triad. The Biden administration has reversed course and endorsed the modernization of the Air Force’s land and air legs, a position Republicans support as well.
Similarly, there appears to be bipartisan support on issues such as modernization efforts for the F-22 Raptor, accelerated development of hypersonic weapons, and even long-resisted cuts to the A-10 fleet.
But Republican leadership in the House and/or Senate could still spell significant changes for the Air Force, particularly if funding increases.
Air Force leaders have said they would have bought more F-35 fighters in this past year’s budget if they had had more resources—a beefed-up budget could give the service the opportunity to do just that.
A number of Republican lawmakers have also expressed alarm about the Air Force’s plans to retire older aircraft at a faster rate than it buys new ones to pay for other modernization efforts. It remains unclear how far they would go to change those plans, however.
There also could be a change in how the Air Force handles its tanker fleet—a number of lawmakers have voiced displeasure at Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s indications that there may be no competition for a future KC-Y tanker, with the service seemingly prepared to go with a modified KC-46.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the leading Republican on the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, have both critiqued that plan, and Rep. Jerry Carl (R-Ala.) tried to include an amendment in the NDAA that would have forced the service to hold a competition for KC-Y, though it was voted down.
In some ways, the tanker issue is parochial, with both Carl and Rogers representing a state where Lockheed Martin has said it will build the LMXT, its proposed alternative to the KC-46. But nearly every vote in favor of holding a competition came from Republicans, and Rogers has already said he wants to revisit the issue next year. Should he become chair of the HASC—and Wittman chair of the subcommittee—they’ll have the ability to push the issue to the forefront.
Rogers’ possible ascension to the top spot on the HASC depends on Republicans winning the House, but should that occur, the Space Force would have one of its leading advocates in a key position on Capitol Hill—Rogers was instrumental in pushing for the creation of the new service.
But his Democratic counterpart in that push, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), isn’t even on the ballot this November. He announced his retirement earlier this year, and his departure from Congress in January 2023 will create an opening for a new top Democrat on the HASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee.
Cooper is just one of several top HASC officials retiring after this election. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), currently the chair of the Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems subcommittee, is leaving, as is Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), head of the Military Personnel subcommittee. Their departures will set off a mini-leadership shuffle among Democrats on the committee, though Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is expected to continue as the party’s top lawmaker on the panel. For Republicans, the only change forecast among subcommittee heads is the departure of Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), who led her party on the Tactical Air and Land Forces panel.
Meanwhile, up-and-comers Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), and Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.)—a former Airman and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance pilot—are all in races Politico has rated as toss-ups.
On the Senate side, the Armed Services Committee will get a new top Republican, as longtime leader Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is retiring. His likely replacement is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a former Air Force judge advocate whose constituency includes Keesler and Columbus Air Force Bases. Wicker co-sponsored a proposed amendment for this year’s NDAA that would slow the Air Force from reducing the size of the T-1 Jayhawk trainer fleet until Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5 has been implemented across the service and USAF submits a date to Congress by which the T-7A trainer will achieve full operational capability.
No other members of the SASC are retiring after this election, but one is in a tough re-election battle. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is in a toss-up race, according to Politico, though he does maintain a narrow lead in the polls. Kelly is currently the chair of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, but he is also the most junior Democratic senator on the SASC, meaning that even if he does win re-election, his position on the panel could be in peril if Republicans win a majority.
Elsewhere in the Senate, the powerful Appropriations Committee is set to get new leaders from both parties, as Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are both retiring. According to reports, they’ll likely be replaced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), though Murray is up for re-election and Politico has only rated the race as “Leans Democratic.” Collins, meanwhile, will also take over as the top Republican on the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, while Democrats will still be led by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Air Force Vets in Congress
At the moment, 15 Air Force veterans are serving in Congress—13 in the House, two in the Senate.
Of those 15, three are retiring at the end of this Congress: Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele (D-Hawaii), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), and Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.). Bacon is the only one in a race that is considered competitive.
According to Military Times, 19 other former Airmen are running for Congress, all in the House. Two of them are heavily favored to win: Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) and Donald Davis (D-N.C.).
Another five are in races Politico has rated as either a “toss-up” or “lean”: Chris West (R-Ga.), Zach Nunn (R-Ia.), Keith Pekau (R-Ill.), Sam Peters (R-Nev.), and J.R. Majewski (R-Ohio).