The Center for Legislative Archives


The Senate Committee on Armed Services, 1947-1996

A Brief History of the Committee: The Stennis Era, 1969-1980

Deep divisions in American society and in the Senate over the Vietnam war and the extent of the nation's military commitments abroad marked the years that Senator John Stennis chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee (1969-1981). The committee confronted assaults on its jurisdiction, an erosion of public support for the military, and a weakening of U.S. military power relative to the Soviet Union's. The committee played an important role in reversing these trends by the end of the decade.

New Subcommittees

To blunt the movement in the Senate to cut defense spending, Chairman Stennis expanded and strengthened the oversight of defense. He began by reorganizing the subcommittees so the Armed Services Committee could focus on the details of major weapons programs. Throughout the 1970s, senior panelists Howard W. Cannon (D-NV) chaired the Tactical Air Power Subcommittee and Thomas J. McIntrye (D-NH) chaired the Research and Development Subcommittee which had major responsibility for critical parts of the Defense Authorization bill.

Senator Stennis retained the chairmanship of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and focused its efforts on procurement. In 1971 and 1972, he conducted a series of indepth hearings on procurement as a prelude to the formation of a special Procurement Subcommittee. Senator Stennis also chaired a new Reprogramming of Funds Subcommittee that reviewed Department of Defense requests for expenditures of funds for purposes other than those the committee had authorized.

Enhanced Oversight

Chairman Stennis also enhanced the authorization process by broadening the committee's access to information. In 1969, the chairman established a system of regular, quarterly Pentagon reports on major weapons programs, cost overruns, and performance tests. In 1973, the committee received for the first time the Pentagons's five-year plan for procurement of major weapons systems. During the 1970s, the Senate Armed Services Committee began to receive planning documents on many defense programs and to review a broad array of Department of Defense reports and studies.

Expanded Staff

Stennis strengthened the committee by expanding its staff. In 1969, he appointed the committee's first staff director and enlarged the professional staff from 15 in 1969 to 30 by 1981. By building a staff of technical experts and weapons specialists, Stennis greatly strengthened the committee's ability to conduct critical, indepth reviews of annual defense requests.

Expansion of Defense Authorization

The Armed Services Committee continued to expand the items in the defense budget requiring authorization. New authorization requirements included procurement of "other" weapons consisting largely of artillery, air defense, small arms, and crew fire-weapons (1969); the average annual active duty personnel strength (1970); military training student loads (1972); civilian employment of the Department of Defense (1973); ammunition facilities (1975); and operations and maintenance (1980).

Manpower and Personnel

In addition to weapons issues, manpower and personnel issues dominated the Armed Services Committee's legislative agenda during the 1970s. The committee's report of the Draft Lottery Act (1969) and the Draft Extension Act of (1971) were part of an historic shift from reliance on the draft to creation of the All-Volunteer Force. In 1973, Chairman Stennis appointed freshman Senator Samuel (Sam) A. Nunn (D-GA) chairman of a Manpower and Personnel Subcommittee to discharge new manpower authorization requirements and to grapple with the many issues surrounding the All-Volunteer Force. Senator Nunn's subcommittee reported bills that became the Reserve Call Up Act (1976), the Military Enlistment Bonus Act (1977), the Military Benefits Act (1980), and the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (1980).

Arms Control and Treaties

Although the Armed Services Committee had no direct jurisdiction over arms control issues, the committee increasingly asserted an interest in any treaty or international agreement affecting the overall military strength of the nation. In 1969, the committee held hearings on the military implications of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Senator Jackson chaired the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) Subcommittee that monitored the talks leading to the Treaty on the Limitation of the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) and an interim agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. In 1975, Senator Jackson's subcommittee held hearings on Soviet compliance with the SALT I agreements.

In 1977, the Armed Services Committee held hearings on the nomination of Paul C. Warnke who President James E. Carter nominated to be U.S. delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. In 1978, the committee played a significant role in the debate over ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty. During July through October of 1979, the committee held hearings on the SALT II agreement and on December 20, 1979 issued a report stating that the agreement as negotiated "is not in the national security interests of the United States."

Jurisdictional Challenges

During the 1970s, the Armed Services Committee confronted an unprecedented number of challenges to its jurisdiction from other committees that took action on weapons cost overruns, military service club scandals, drug abuse in the military, and the draft. In 1976, the committee lost some of its jurisdiction over intelligence when the Senate established a Select Committee on Intelligence with responsibility for oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency and national strategic intelligence. The Armed Services Committee, however, retained jurisdiction over tactical intelligence with military applications and was referred sequentially the annual Intelligence Authorization bill.

Senate Reforms

Changes in the procedures, operations, and distribution of power in the Senate during the 1970s impinged on the defense authorization process and chipped away at the committee's traditions of a powerful chairman and bipartisanship. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 went into effect in the 94th Congress (1975-76) and required that the Armed Services Committee provide target amounts for the national defense budget category to the newly-established Senate Budget Committee. Two changes in staffing further undermined committee chairs' powers and Senators' reliance on the professional staffs of the standing committees. Senate Resolution 60, adopted in 1975, authorized Senators to hire personal staff to support their committee assignments. A 1977 amendment to the Legislative Reorganization Act authorized the Republican minority to establish the committee's first separately-funded minority staff.

Chairman Stennis successfully led the committee through this difficult era. He kept the panel focused on the key problems that grew out of the Vietnam war: the neglected state of the nation's weapons programs and the need to replace the draft with a viable manpower system. Despite powerful challenges from anti-Pentagon forces, the committee never lost a floor fight on a major weapons system that it reported.