By Walter Pincus
The third time may be the charm for the Defense Department in getting Congress to start the procedure that ultimately could close more excess military bases.
Past and proposed reductions in force numbers have created what defense officials say is more than a 25 percent surplus of military bases and facilities that are wasting billions of dollars each year. A separate Army analysis found that its excess capacity within the United States ranges between 12 and 28 percent, depending upon the facility. That figure will grow, because the Army is shrink by an additional 70,000 troops in the next five years.
Closing a base or even a facility is a political hot potato — so much so that Congress not only turned down the last two requests to start the BRAC process, in 2012 and 2013, but also barred the Pentagon from even planning for one.
This year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Pentagon colleagues may be trying to mount their own political pressure to begin a BRAC process that could lead to approval by 2017 of a list of installations to be closed.
At hearings and in news conferences, Hagel and his team have referred to a section of law that they say gives the secretary unilateral authority to take some steps. As he put it on March 6 before the House Armed Services Committee, “As you probably know, in Title 10, I think it’s Section 2687, the secretary does have some authorities in reorganizing different bases.”
That section of the law says in part that the secretary can act “if the President certifies to the Congress that such closure or realignment must be implemented for reasons of national security or a military emergency.”
It also says the defense secretary can act “without regard to any provision of law restricting the use of funds for closing or realigning military installations included in any appropriation or authorization Act.”
It’s clearly just a threat and not the desired route. Hagel’s press spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, repeated to reporters on March 9 that Hagel “does have some authorities in the law to allow him to do some restructuring on his own. Again, our preference is another round of BRAC.”
Beyond the threat, the Hagel team has introduced some other items that could lure Congress to change its anti-BRAC views:
Most opposition to a new BRAC is based on the 2005 BRAC experience, in which implementation costs increased enormously — from $21 billion to $35 billion. Hagel and others now say that BRAC 2005 followed two tracks. One was for savings, the other for reorganization of forces and installations. The latter approach involved major construction spending that ballooned but was accepted because there was plenty of money for the Pentagon at the time.
A new Army prep school facility at Fort Monmouth, N.J., was initially estimated to cost $5 million. But a change in plans, which led to building the school at West Point, ended up costing $103 million. The price tag for the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, associated with the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, turned out to be more than $1 billion, in part because of a congressional provision that required new military hospitals to be “world-class medical facilities,” which greatly increased their cost.
On the other hand, closing the Mississippi Army Ammunition Plant as part of the 2005 BRAC turned out well. Its one-time cost, originally estimated at $32 million, was only $6 million, while the closing has saved $5 million a year. The facility was on property turned over to NASA and is now part of the Stennis Space Center.
Despite the excess expenses, Defense officials say the 2005 BRAC process is generating $3.8 billion in savings per year.
Pentagon officials say that without closing bases through BRAC, the Defense Department cannot reduce the number of civilian employees who work at such installations. Reductions in the department’s civilian workforce “would be larger if we had BRAC authority and could close bases, because as I said, that’s where a lot of our civilians work,” Robert Hale, the outgoing Defense Department comptroller, told a conference last month organized by McAleese and Associates, a consulting firm based in Northern Virginia.
Faced with the need to cut non-operational expenses, the Pentagon this year has sharply reduced proposed spending for military construction. It is seeking $5.4 billion in the fiscal 2015 request, down from $8.4 billion in fiscal 2014. The Army, for example, is not looking to build new facilities because its size is being reduced. Instead, according to Katherine Hammack, Army assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment, “we’re focused on fixing the failing, moving out of temporary structures that we’ve been in too long.”
Testifying before the House Appropriations military construction subcommittee Wednesday, she cited as an example the use of funds on “a facility that’s termite-ridden, that we’re concerned about the structure, that one corner of the building’s up on jacks, and it desperately needs to be replaced. . . . So that’s what our focus is on.”
Under laws passed in 1988 and 1990 that were intended to insulate base closings from political considerations, Congress must authorize the establishment of an independent BRAC commission, usually appointed by the president and congressional leaders. The Defense Department gives the commission a list of bases or facilities it believes should be closed or expanded and the reasoning behind each action.
The BRAC commission then holds public hearings on each facility, makes up its mind on each one and sends its list to the president. As the process stands, President Obama would have to approve the list. It would then go to Congress, which would have 45 days to decide on the list through a resolution of disapproval. Legislators are barred from making any changes.
“If there is no BRAC, then what?” John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, said in an interview last week.
Let’s see whether the third time is the charm for the BRAC process.