April 23, 2008 By Jeff Lindemyer. With the nation’s eyes focused squarely on the presidential candidates, little attention has been paid to the growing list of influential members of Congress who plan to retire at the end of this year. These retirements will have important implications as committee chairs and ranking members pass their batons to successors who may or may not have the same priorities, ability, or forcefulness when it comes to arms control.
Arms control advocates scored a major victory at the end of 2007 when lawmakers eliminated all funding for the Bush administration’s program to build the so-called “Reliable Replacement Warhead” or RRW. The administration, however, may continue to push for RRW funding in fiscal year 2009. With a number of key players slated to leave office and new members of Congress coming in, the 2008 congressional elections may help determine the fate of the controversial RRW program.
One prime example is Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oversees the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons. With the Los Alamos National Lab located in his home state, Domenici has long been an ardent champion of new nuclear weapons programs. His retirement will hand the position of ranking member to Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who will certainly not be as pro-nuclear as Domenici and may instead choose to focus on other issues. New Mexico’s Senate seat itself may go to an opponent of the RRW program, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, who will run against either Rep. Heather Wilson or Rep. Steve Pearce — two Republican supporters of the program.
The retirement of Rep. David Hobson (R-OH), ranking member of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Committee, means the loss of a leading GOP voice against the Bush administration’s efforts to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. Despite previous support for a nuclear “bunker buster,” Hobson worked closely with committee chairman Pete Visclosky (D-IN) to slash the budget for new nuclear weapons in 2007. The pair was subsequently voted the Arms Control Association’s “Arms Control Person of the Year” for their efforts. Unfortunately, Hobson’s likely replacement as ranking member, Zach Wamp (R-TN), is unlikely to match Hobson’s vigor and vision on the issue, weakening current bipartisan opposition to the program.
The unfortunate passing of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) likely means that chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee passes to Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who was set to take over the role next year after Lantos’ announced retirement. Lantos leaves behind a generally strong record on arms control, including a number of votes opposing the development of new nuclear weapons. Berman’s voting record presages a similar view, suggesting that Berman will uphold his predecessor’s opposition to building new nuclear weapons.
But retirements alone will not decide the future of the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” program; incoming members will also play a significant role. For example, the Democrat challenging Republican Sen. Gordon Smith in Oregon, Jeff Merkley, is an expert on nuclear weapons and could easily become a leader on the issue. He previously worked on nuclear arms agreements in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and then moved on to the Congressional Budget Office where he prepared reports on Trident II missiles and the B-1B bomber. Merkley opposes building a new generation of nuclear weapons and endorses the Shultz-Kissinger-Perry-Nunn vision of moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world.
Another candidate who strongly opposes new nuclear weapons is Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, who is vying with former Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer for Sen. Wayne Allard’s open seat in Colorado. Along with retiring Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Allard is a supporter of RRW who sits on the powerful Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the program. Even if the retirements of Allard and Craig do not result in Democrats taking over their seats, it will at least give new Republicans a seat at the table.
An additional wild card, of course, will be who gets sworn in as the next president in January 2009. Any Democratic president is unlikely to pursue RRW, but it is unclear what a Republican would do, especially if they faced a Democratic Congressional majority.
The upcoming congressional elections will prove tremendously important in the ongoing battle over whether to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. While Hobson’s presence in the House will be sorely missed, the subtractions in the Senate of Sens. Domenici, Allard, and Craig, combined with the possible additions of Udall, Merkley, and other opponents of new nuclear weapons like Tom Allen in Maine and Al Franken in Minnesota, could radically improve the prospects for arms control in 2009 and beyond. These new candidates’ elections and leadership may help bury some of the Bush administration’s more provocative nuclear weapons policies once and for all.
Jeff Lindemyer is a Policy Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C.