The Center for Legislative Archives


The Senate Committee on Armed Services, 1947-1996

A Brief History of the Committee: A New Era, 1981-1996

The most recent epoch of the Senate Armed Services Committee's history resembled its formative years of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Four chairs continued the committee tradition of strong leadership: John G. Tower (1981-85), Barry M. Goldwater (1985-87), Sam Nunn (1987-95) and Strom Thurmond (1995-98). The frequent change in leadership, strikingly in contrast with the two previous decades, marked a new era of shifting party control of the Senate with majority status in these eight Congresses evenly divided between the two parties. Heightened party competition placed the committee's tradition of bipartisanship under strain. Perhaps more fundamentally, this era was marked by instability and unpredictability in the nation's military requirements unparalleled since the late 1940s.

John Tower Chairmanship (1981-85)

The chairmanship of John Tower (R-TX) was inevitably associated with the exhilaration of the largest peacetime expansion of the defense budget in the nation's history. By placing the Senate Armed Services Committee at the forefront of rebuilding the national defenses, Chairman Tower made a permanent imprint on the committee. He began by replacing the subcommittee structure that Senator Stennis created with a new one that reflected the major military missions of defense policy.

Chairman Tower brought to a culmination the 20-year process of expanding the annual defense authorization requirement. As ranking minority member of the committee in the 96th Congress (1979-81), Senator Tower led the drive to require authorization of operations and maintenance accounts. In 1982, the committee required authorization for procurement of ammunition and "other procurement." When the committee expanded the requirement to include working capital funds, virtually the entire defense budget was subject to authorization prior to appropriations.

Chairman Tower was intimately involved in the formulation of the Ronald W. Reagan administration's defense request, a sharp departure from the practice of previous committee chairs. Senator Tower and committee staff helped formulate the Fiscal Year 1982 Defense Authorization bill, which they regarded as "the blueprint' and the "stepping stone in the Reagan defense buildup." Finally, the Armed Services Committee reported its first Omnibus Defense Authorization bill in 1983 which departed from the pattern of reporting separate authorization bills.

Barry Goldwater Chairmanship (1985-87)

When Senator Goldwater (R-AZ) became chairman in the 99th Congress (1985-87), the political momentum of the defense buildup had waned, the growth in defense spending peaked, and a long period of real decline in the defense budget began. The retiring chairman made only marginal changes in the authorization process and mobilized the committee behind enacting the first defense reorganization since the Eisenhower administration. Chairman Goldwater and ranking minority member Nunn provided the bipartisan impetus for passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 over the opposition of the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense.

Sam Nunn Chairmanship (1987-95)

When Senator Nunn became chairman of the committee in 1987, he was regarded as the Senate's authoritative voice on defense issues and possessed a talent for staking out a politically stable middle ground on which to anchor defense policies. As chairman, he sought to shift the attention of the committee and Congress from the "grains of sand on the beach" to the broader issues of defense policy. To improve the committee's ability to "relate the budget request to the national security goals," the chairman extended the mission-orientation of subcommittees, provided the subcommittee chairs with detailed policy oversight guidelines, and instructed them to address specific policy questions.

Chairman Nunn began the first session of each Congress with a comprehensive review of national security strategy that became the committee's starting point for review of all military policies and budgets. In order to bring more stability, predictability, and efficiency to defense policy making, Senator Nunn was responsible for requiring and first implementing a biennial defense budget with the Fiscal Year 1988/1989 request. In addition to these innovations, Chairman Nunn systematically developed elaborate procedures and guidelines to maximize the full range of the committee's powers.

Strom Thurmond Chairmanship (1995-98)

By the time James Strom Thurmond (R-SC) became chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the 104th Congress (1995-97), he was, like Senators Russell and Stennis, a much-revered and esteemed figure in the Senate. He was the only Senator who had been a member of that body when the Republicans last controlled both houses of Congress in 1955. He was also the last link to the earliest years of the committee--the last Senator who served on the Senate Armed Services Committee through most of the Russell Era and all of the Stennis Era.

Appointed to the committee in 1959, the year Russell created the requirement for annual authorization, Senator Thurmond watched the authorization process evolve for 34 years and understood that enactment of the defense authorization bill and the power of the Armed Services Committee had become one and the same.

In the 104th Congress, the committee came perilously close to not passing the bill on which its power and influence had come to depend. The budget dispute between congressional Republicans and President William J. Clinton, ultimately leading to a Federal Government shutdown, vividly illustrated how the disruption of the budgetary process threatened defense authorization legislation. Further complicating passage of the Fiscal Year 1996 Defense Authorization bill was deep disagreement between President Clinton and congressional Republicans over deployment of an anti-missile defense system that ultimately led to a December 28, 1995 Presidential veto. At Chairman Thurmond's insistence, the panel pressed for another conference that yielded a missile defense provision agreeable to the President. The committee preserved the tradition of passing a defense authorization bill and exercising influence on defense matters.