Congress Takes Pre-Emptive Strike Against BRAC
By Juana Summers
March 14, 2013
The Pentagon hasn’t said anything official to Congress about reviving its reviled base-closure process, but lawmakers aren’t even waiting for the proposal. Their answer is already no.
“I categorically reject this notion that presumes to balance the federal budget on the backs of our service members,” Republican Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman said Thursday.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission — known as BRAC — always strikes fear in lawmakers who fear the job losses in their home districts from military base closures. And the process always brings out the turf fighting in these lawmakers as they try to stop BRAC from hitting their hometowns.
Anticipating the argument that the military is drawing down and as such would wind up with more real estate than people — a dynamic that service leaders have warned would only increase under sequestration — Wittman said he didn’t buy it.
“This assertion that a reduction of 100,000 service members is a principal reason to have a BRAC round today is short-sighted,” he said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he’d oppose a BRAC request, and believes Democrats would agree with him. He argued that it’s a lengthy and costly process that produces few immediate savings in a time of austerity.
"I expect strong bipartisan opposition to any request for a BRAC round from the administration,” McKeon told POLITICO. “We are still paying for the last BRAC round, so members in both parties will be skeptical that it is any kind of remedy for the problems posed by sequester."
Just the same, the Defense Department has said elsewhere that it plans to send the Hill a request for two rounds of BRAC, in 2015 and 2017, but members’ anxiety over the danger to home-district bases was so acute that they took the offensive.
Wittman convened a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness panel almost a month before the Pentagon is expected to release its budget request, to get himself and as many members on the record as possible opposing BRAC — though Wittman said he was willing to see if his Defense Department witnesses could offer “a compelling argument to change my position.”
It’s a process Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat, compared to “shadowboxing” — musing on a proposal in the abstract that doesn’t actually exist.
The Pentagon witnesses did their best, hamstrung by the official protocols that forbade them from talking in detail about what the Pentagon will include in its budget — a fact the witnesses repeated multiple times, declining to comment on what the Pentagon might ask for in fiscal 2014, but conceding that there’d been a request for two rounds of base closures and consolidations in last year’s budget and there could be another in the future.
Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack reminded Wittman that the Army plans to make inactive six of its Brigade Combat Teams inside the U.S., and that doing so would free up “excess infrastructure measured in hundreds of thousands of square feet.”
Guam Del. Madeleine Bordallo, the top Democrat on Wittman’s subcommittee, said she was "skeptical of the value of a new BRAC round" that could hurt communities already trying to stay afloat amid a beleaguered economy.
“Given that BRAC 2005 ended up costing more and saving less than expected, and based on our current environment, I remain skeptical of the value of a new BRAC round at this juncture,” she said, asking witnesses to assure that the focus of new rounds of base closures would be “on excess capacity and not on realigning mission as was the case in 2005, which did not lead to significant savings in the near term.”
Lawmakers have faulted BRAC as a way to save money in lean times, pointing out that the 2005 round actually cost the Pentagon billions upfront for environmental cleanup, moves, new construction and other expenses.
A Government Accountability Office report last June showed the total cost of implementing the 2005 BRAC was $35.1 billion, or $14.1 billion more than the initial $21 billion estimate. Still, the study concluded that the 2005 round would eventually save money over the long term.
On Thursday John Conger, the assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, said flatly, “We are doing nothing at this point but saving from previous BRAC rounds.” Later, he added that any BRAC would have “spending up front, savings later.”
Hammack argued that because the 2005 BRAC had different goals, it was unfair to use it as a political punching bag.
“Because the focus of the BRAC 2005 round was on realigning installations to better support forces, as opposed to saving money and space exclusively, it is a less accurate gauge of the savings the department can achieve through another BRAC round,” Hammack said in written testimony provided by the House Armed Services Committee.
Even though BRAC is about as popular as the mumps, that doesn’t mean some members aren’t hedging their bets. One strategy is to get out ahead of BRAC by focusing on force deployment decisions that could get military assets into place well ahead of the slow closure and consolidation process.
This week Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, appealed to Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to “fully consider Alaska’s enduring contributions and indisputable advantages” as the service makes decisions about its force structure.
Also this week, House Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a Florida Republican whose district includes Naval Station Mayport, hailed the Navy’s decision to move the amphibious transport USS New York from Norfolk, Va., to Mayport, part of the area’s consolation prize for not getting a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Crenshaw and other Florida lawmakers are also counting on the Navy to replace many of the aging frigates now stationed at Mayport with new littoral combat ships as they enter the fleet in the coming decade.
The wild card for this year’s round of BRAC is how much emphasis the Obama administration will put behind it. Congressional sources say that movement on BRAC isn’t impossible if the White House is willing to use veto threats or other strong-arm tactics, but it isn’t clear where President Barack Obama stands on base closures.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, has not spoken publicly about the prospect of BRAC since his confirmation hearings in January, but he told lawmakers then in written answers that, “as with industry, the department should examine its infrastructure and eliminate excess."
“The BRAC process is not perfect,” Hagel wrote, “but I believe BRAC is a fair and comprehensive way to right-size the department’s footprint, and is the best process identified to date. If confirmed, I would have to look at the need for BRAC in the future.”