Nearly all the House Armed Services Committee members running for reelection won this week, but a convergence of factors could still lead the committee to take on a very different personality when the new Congress is seated in January and in the coming years.

The most obvious factor is that the committee will get a new chairman. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is retiring at the end of the year and has endorsed HASC vice chairman and intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities (IET&C) subcommittee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) as his successor. Seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) will also plead his case in front of the Republican Steering Committee, which will select committee leadership in the coming weeks.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is widely believed to be the top contender to replace retiring HASC chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.)

Depending on whom the steering committee selects, either the IET&C or seapower subcommittee will seek a new chairman. The military personnel subcommittee will need a new chairman too, as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) will step down after hitting his term limit. Tactical air and land subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) is looking to lead the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and if successful he would leave a third HASC subcommittee chair-less.

Filling those leadership positions may not happen as naturally as usual, Jimmy Thomas, director of legislative policy for the National Defense Industrial Association, told Defense Daily. Thomas said many mid-level HASC Republicans are senior members of other committees and might run for leadership positions outside HASC.

“It’s this vacuum from below, so you’ve got members that normally probably wouldn’t be in the position to jump on those [leadership] spots are going to jump up,” he said. Those younger members who may find themselves in position to competitively vie for HASC subcommittee chairmanships include Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Scott Rigell (R-Va.), Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) all have military experience–which has not been the case for most recent HASC leaders.

“They’re not big defense names,” Thomas said, but given the power vacuum in the committee, “I think guys with a military record…are going to be players. Maybe not necessarily this year, but possibly.”

Similarly, on the Democrats’ side, Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) will move up a bit in seniority given the loss of several of their HASC colleagues.

“Those are both female veterans from current wars with a lot of experience, so I think there’s an opportunity for them to stake out a little bit more of their defense chops,” Thomas said.

Add to that the fact that many congressmen-elect joining the House in January are also veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and could seek to join HASC, “even though the Republicans didn’t lose anybody, the makeup of the committee looks significantly different,” Thomas said.

The same trend is taking hold in the Senate, where Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) will add both youth and military experience. If they join the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I think there will be an opportunity here for the two committees to come together and really address some of these issues” that have plagued defense budgets in recent years–excess infrastructure while Congress refuses to allow another round of base closures, skyrocketing personnel costs as Congress won’t allow the Pentagon to rein in pay and benefits, and force structure questions that have divided the military and Congress among nontraditional lines.

HASC and SASC “have the ability to address some of these bigger and more entrenched issues that are in the budget to kind of help with sequestration–you don’t necessarily need a higher topline, but you need more flexibility within the numbers you have to shift around and put [funding] in the places you need, such as R&D, O&M, things like that,” Thomas said. Tackling overarching defense issues, particularly pay and benefits, “takes a lot of political will,” and these lawmakers’ military experience might give them an outsized voice in the discussion despite being junior lawmakers.