A rare display of bipartisanship is coming soon to Capitol Hill as lawmakers join together in their opposition to the Pentagon’s request for another round of base realignments and closures, also known as BRAC.
The Defense Department faces an uphill battle with its renewed effort to convince Congress that another BRAC round is in order starting in 2017. If implemented, it would be the sixth round in the past 35 years.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel fired the opening salvo last month.
“We cannot fully achieve our goals for overhead reductions without cutting unnecessary and costly infrastructure,” Hagel said in a speech. “I am mindful that Congress has not agreed to [our] BRAC requests of the last two years. But if Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure.”
Congress has generally been hostile to the idea of more base reductions, and last year lawmakers shut down any consideration of another BRAC round by prohibiting the Pentagon from using authorized funds to draw up plans for more base closures.
Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have already criticized the Pentagon’s latest proposal. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon” noted the Defense Department’s recent record when it comes to implementing base closures.
The last round, in 2005, ended up exceeding the Pentagon’s cost estimate for the 182 facilities and 123,000 personnel affected. That round is estimated to save $15 billion by 2025, according to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
Another reason for overall congressional opposition is that even talking about base closures causes anxiety in certain districts, particularly in rural settings where the military is a major employer. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said in a report that “while base closures and realignments often create socioeconomic distress in communities initially, research has shown that they generally have not had the dire effects that many communities expected. For rural areas, however, the impacts can be greater and the economic recovery slower.”
Lawmakers are speaking out now because once the BRAC process begins, Congress wields little power until near the end. After the Pentagon draws up its list of affected bases, an independent commission makes its recommendations and changes before submitting the list to the White House. The president then has the option of rejecting the list or sending it to Capitol Hill for an up-or-down vote, meaning no amendments can be tacked on by lawmakers.
Congress also has the option of taking no action, in which case the list is approved, giving political cover to lawmakers who don’t want to be seen as supporting the base closures.
While Congress has a say in determining annual troop levels for each branch of the military, the Pentagon decides where personnel are stationed.
The BRAC process does not apply to U.S. bases overseas, meaning the Pentagon has a free hand to make changes how it sees fit. Hagel said that in Europe alone, the Defense Department has reduced its infrastructure by 30 percent since 2000. More cuts will be announced this spring, he said last month.
With expected reductions in troop levels, lawmakers will find it harder to oppose the cuts while still calling for greater budget efficiency at the Defense Department.
“The fact of the matter is that with the planned drawdowns, the Department of Defense is going to be left with excess infrastructure,” said Michaela Dodge, a policy analyst for defense and strategic policy at the Heritage Foundation. “It's only logical that they look for ways to reduce that infrastructure.”
Dodge is in good company. A poll of National Journal’s National Security Insiders last month found that 91 percent of respondents said Congress should agree to another round of closings.
While the process can save money in the long run, the upfront costs can be substantial. Dismantling a base and transferring it to new owners often requires spending on environmental clean-up efforts. As a result, net savings often aren’t realized for several years, even decades. The Pentagon says it saves about $12 billion a year as a result of the five BRAC rounds from 1988 through 2005.
Congressional consideration of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, already under way at the committee level, will provide the first glimpse of whether lawmakers are open to a new round of BRAC. So far, the prospects don’t seem promising, according to experts like Dodge.
“I'm not optimistic that we'll be able to reach compromise on such a controversial issue,” she said.
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