Base Fight a Microcosm of House Fiscal Fantasies
By LAWRENCE KORB and KATHERINE BLAKELEY
In their markup of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the US House Armed Services Committee has once again rejected the Pentagon’s request to have another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, along with the rest of the Pentagon’s strategic choices. Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., planned to offer an amendment authorizing a 2017 BRAC round when the bill was considered on the House floor, but the House Rules Committee refused to rule it in order, preventing Smith’s amendment from being debated or voted on.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has been equally stubborn, with the Readiness subcommittee prohibiting a BRAC round in its markup of the bill. Members from both parties and houses have made their antagonism to BRAC plain. In the words of HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., BRAC is “for sure” not going to be in this year’s defense authorization bill.
This opposition ignores the fiscal and force structure realities facing the Pentagon, and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) bill racks up an additional $50 billion in costs over the next five years. In his own words, McKeon and the “no-cuts-ever” HASC Republicans are hoping that “some miracle happens and we get money … next year that we don’t have now.”
Hoping for a “miracle” is no way to budget our national defense. The House needs to grapple with the reality of tighter defense budgets and a smaller military, and let our defense leaders make smart, strategic choices. SASC’s opposition to a BRAC round is similarly discouraging. The president’s threat to veto this year’s defense bill if it continues to tie the Pentagon’s hands on cost savings, weapons systems and infrastructure should bring this point home.
Authorizing another BRAC round is a good first step toward budgetary reality. It would let the Pentagon start shutting down the roughly 20 percent of its installations that it doesn’t need and put that money toward higher priorities, such as training, to make sure our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are ready to fight when called on. The Pentagon needs installations and bases that support current and future forces, not the deadweight of the costly infrastructure of 40 years ago.
It is important to understand how and why the BRAC process was created and how it has worked.
A 1977 amendment to a military construction bill took away the Pentagon’s right to close bases and required the Pentagon to give Congress a year’s notice and submit economic, strategic and environmental studies that could be challenged in court.
By the mid 1980s, the base closure process had halted, with no major closures after 1977. As the assistant secretary of defense for manpower, installations and logistics, my office estimated that we had excess base capacity of about 40 percent. Moreover, by Reagan’s second term it was clear that because of our exploding budget deficit, defense spending would have to decline.
In early 1985, I met with Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., who had just taken over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. We agreed that to break the logjam, I would forward to him a list of bases we would close if we could close any.
This created such a stir that in 1988 Congress passed a law creating a base closure and realignment process. In a nutshell, the Pentagon submitted a list of bases to close, which was extensively vetted by a commission appointed by the president and Congress. After the commission’s report, the base closures would proceed unless Congress passed a joint resolution disapproving of the recommendations.
The genius of this process is that it would proceed automatically absent congressional action and that members of Congress couldn’t intervene to save particular bases. This allowed the Pentagon to close unneeded bases without pinning responsibility for specific closures on electorally attuned members of Congress.
Congress stipulated that the BRAC process would take place in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1995.
The process worked wonderfully in the first three rounds. However, in 1995, the commission faced considerable pressure to protect Kelly Air Force Base in Texas and McClellan Air Force base in California. Still, the commission included these two bases in the list of recommended closures. President Clinton, who was gearing up for his re-election campaign, accused the commission of playing politics. Although Clinton ultimately approved the entire list, resentment grew among members of Congress who had taken political heat for previous base closures and a new BRAC was not authorized for another decade.
Another round was authorized at the request of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2005, which focused on realignment and improving joint operations, reducing excess infrastructure by only 3 percent. Widely disparaged as expensive and poorly managed, critics should recall that $25 billion of the $35 billion total cost was for new construction, not closing bases. Even with this expenditreadded spending, the 2005 BRAC round still saves DoD nearly $4 billion annually.
It is past time for another BRAC round, but many in Congress remain irrationally hopeful money will fall from the sky or are parochially committed to protecting local jobs. The Pentagon should take a page out of the playbook that Goldwater and I worked out and send Congress a list of bases it would close. This would galvanize the Congress and the public to stop wasting money and get the wheels turning for a BRAC before 2017.
Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Installations and Logistics from 1981-1985 under President Reagan. Blakeley is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress.
via Commentary: Authorize a New BRAC | Defense News.