Veterans’ groups decry Smith ouster

Asbury Park Press

The ouster of Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., from the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday was met with stunned anger by some veterans and other supporters who see the Republican’s departure as a loss.

House Republican leaders voted Wednesday night to replace Smith, R-N.J., as chairman and on Thursday went further, taking away his seat on the committee where he has served since 1981. He was replaced as chairman in favor of Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind. — a 46-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran and Army Reserve colonel — largely because he had riled his party and the Bush administration by loudly pushing for more federal aid to veterans.

“I’ve been in the business for 20 years, and he was the best,” said John Dorrity of Dover Township, an Army veteran of Vietnam and director of the Ocean County Veterans Service Bureau. “And I’m not saying that because he’s from our district. He advanced the veterans’ agenda at a national level.”

In a telephone interview Thursday, Dorrity was joined by other officials of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, who were meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas, in expressing anger and alarm at Smith’s sudden fall.

“Look at the aging veteran population. They need more health care, more help,” said Ann Knowles, veterans director for Sampson County, N.C. “Why would you cut back veterans benefits when we’re sending people to war?”

Smith’s departure from the chairmanship and the committee is definitely a loss, said William J. Devereaux, a Vietnam veteran and director of veterans programs for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

“I can’t see it being good for veterans. Not to disparage Mr. Buyer, but I know what I have with Chris,” Devereaux said. “He’s been blind to party politics and always did the right thing for veterans.”

John Furgess, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he sees the change in the committee chairmanship as a foreboding sign.

“The ouster of Rep. Chris Smith was clearly a politically driven decision, not one based on performance,” said Furgess said in a statement. “Instead of a message of strength and continuity being sent, what’s being communicated loud and clear across the country is that your job’s in jeopardy if you put principles before politics.

“We will miss his leadership,” he said.

Smith also received moral support from Democratic members of the New Jersey congressional delegation.

“He put the needs of veterans before party politics, something the House Republican leadership is increasingly unwilling to accept,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said in a statement. “This action is unfortunate news to the millions of veterans who lobbied hard on Chris’ behalf to keep his post.”

“There is simply no room for moderates in today’s Republican party,” Pallone said. “Chris deserved better treatment.”

Smith spent 24 years on the committee, which shapes federal policy on health care, pensions and other programs designed to help the nation’s 26 million veterans. Since he became chairman in 2001, he had drafted 13 laws and shepherded several others improving benefits for veterans.

“When I finally got the chairmanship . . . we went over every aspect of what is broken and what needs to be fixed. And what concerns me is, I wasn’t done,” Smith told reporters Thursday. “I have a whole number of things I still wanted to do.”

One of those was to increase the amount a family survivor gets from $250,000 to $500,000. Smith said he still plans to pursue that legislation, though he conceded it will be much more difficult without a seat on the panel.

Long known for his strong anti-abortion stance and support of human rights causes overseas, Smith has been allied with GOP social conservatives on those fronts. Yet theories in Washington maintain that Smith might be getting punished for bucking the party line on social and labor issues im-portant to his blue-collar voters.

He was the first Republican to back the creation of the Sept. 11 commission over the objections of President Bush and other Republican leaders. And he voted against his party nearly 23 percent of the time in 2004, fourth-highest among Republican House members, according to Congressional Quarterly.

The immediate cause of Smith’s expulsion, though, seems to have been his outspoken opposition to restraints on spending for veterans, especially in the past year of the Iraq war, said Gerry P. Little, a Republican Ocean County freeholder. The county’s Veterans Service Bureau serves a population of 68,000 former military men and women, the largest in New Jersey.

“I don’t think this reflects well on our Republican Party and our House leadership in Speaker (Dennis) Hastert,” Little said.

Under rules adopted in 1995, Hastert, R-Ill., has the power to remove committee chairmen he deems to be incompetent or disloyal.

Smith headed the committee for four years and, under Republican rules, should have had two more to go. It’s the first time since Republicans won control of the House in 1994 that a sitting chairman has been ousted.

“That’s amazing. Blocking someone from a chairmanship is unusual. But taking them off a committee altogether . . . that’s like a double eclipse,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and longtime observer of congressional politics.

It’s indicative of the iron-fist party discipline that has taken root in Congress since Republicans swept into power with the 1994 election, Baker said.

Smith’s stance on veterans programs is “out of line with the president’s desire for fiscal austerity,” Baker said. “They knew Smith would stand up for veterans spending, so now he’s paying the price.”

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