Sen. Frank Lautenberg died last year at 89 -- an unremarkable event, except for one thing. The New Jersey Democrat was the last surviving World War II veteran in the Senate. Only two remaining House members, John Dingell of Michigan and Ralph Hall of Texas, served during that war, and both are leaving Congress at the end of this year.

These departures help explain why the current controversy over outrageous inefficiencies in the Veterans Affairs department has become ammunition for one more partisan battle in Washington. The sense of national unity -- forged by the common experience of World War II and carried into Congress by a generation of veterans -- has now totally evaporated.

So an issue that should command a bipartisan response, providing quality health care to deserving veterans, explodes in political finger-pointing and name-calling. Take Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee. He attacked leading veterans' organizations because they failed to follow the GOP line and call for the head of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The organizations fired back, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars accusing the senator of a "monumental cheap shot." The Paralyzed Veterans of America told Burr: "You clearly represent the worst of politics in this country."

Burr was unmoved. In fact, he was proud. "Clearly I hit a nerve," he boasted to The New York Times.

The VA's problems are hardly new. Horror stories about wait times have been around for years. Yet when Democrats proposed legislation earlier this year providing funds to improve VA services, all but two Senate Republicans joined a filibuster to bury the bill.

Republicans feel free to take these positions because veterans play a steadily declining role in public life. In the current Congress, only one in five members has served in the military; in the early '70s, almost three out of four lawmakers were veterans.

Military service was once an essential credential for a presidential candidate, but Bill Clinton -- who assiduously avoided military service during Vietnam -- defeated two genuine war heroes: George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. John McCain spent five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam, yet lost to another non-vet, Barack Obama, in 2008.

Families follow the same pattern as politics. All of us of a certain age grew up with photos of male relatives (and an occasional woman) in military uniforms, displayed on our end tables and mantelpieces. Cokie's dad was a Navy officer during World War II. Steve had two uncles in the service and still has a photo of his Uncle Murray, dressed in his Coast Guard uniform, peering into his baby carriage.

About 12 percent of the American population served in the military during World War II, but less than 1 percent fought the nation's recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We now have a military class that does our fighting for us, while most of us are totally insulated from the trials of war.

When Steve was growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, veterans' organizations were a vital part of civic life. He played on a basketball team sponsored by the VFW and still recalls with pride those three white letters on his orange jersey. But our grandchildren know few veterans and the VFW doesn't sponsor any of their many sports teams.

It's not just veterans' organizations; the military itself has lost clout. They are strong supporters of legislation that would allow youngsters who were brought to this country illegally by their parents to gain permanent residence by enlisting in the armed forces.

The idea is a win-win for everybody. The newcomers would acquire American values and useful skills in the military; the services would get a rich new source of motivated and qualified recruits. And yet the House Republican leadership refuses even to bring the bill up for a vote -- another casualty in its fierce determination to oppose any measure that the Obama administration might favor.

The VA scandal is dangerous for Obama and his Democratic allies, and it should be. But the search for solutions should be practical, not political. Instead, veterans have become one more pawn in Washington's endless partisan warfare.

A generation ago, Congress was filled with legislators in both parties who had fought together under the same flag, wearing the same uniform. They learned loyalty to their country first, not a party.

But those vets are rapidly disappearing. So are their pictures on our mantelpieces. And our public life is poorer without them.

 

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.