Measures to stop ‘back-door’ base closures win approval in House and Senate

Rahmatullah Naikzad/AP file photo

Both chambers of Congress have approved measures that attempt to stop the Defense Department from conducting what lawmakers call “backdoor” closures of military bases.

The Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision in its markup of the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Bill this week that would temporarily prohibit the Pentagon from reducing the number of civilian personnel at a base to less than 300.

The provision was penned by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, after he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pressed Air Force officials in April on their plans to transfer an F-16 squadron at Eielson Air Force Base to joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in their state. Defense officials anticipated the move could save $3.5 million in fiscal 2013 and $169.5 million during the next five years.

The senators were concerned the transfers would circumvent the formal Base Closure and Realignment Commission process, which they say would be preferable because it requires more congressional scrutiny and review of Defense proposals.

House lawmakers have similar concerns about BRAC “loopholes.” Rep. Don Young, R.-Alaska, and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., authored a nearly identical amendment included in the House version of the Defense authorization bill passed earlier this month. The Air Force also is proposing reallocating C-130 aircraft from a reserve at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Defense believes it can shutter facilities where there are fewer than 300 personnel without using the formal BRAC process, a strategy that also has been unpopular with lawmakers. Defense officials also threatened to act outside the BRAC process on any base closure if they do not receive congressional approval to reconvene the commission.

Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, told lawmakers in April that the Pentagon wants to avoid a nonofficial BRAC approach because the department would be constrained in what it could do to help local communities affected by the closures.

The Senate’s recent markup of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 request included no authorization for the additional round of BRAC closures the department requested.

A spokesman for Murphy argued the department sees realignments in Alaska and Pennsylvania as “low-hanging fruit” to undergo an easier process than a formal BRAC due to personnel numbers hovering around 300.

Begich said the Senate committee’s bill also requires the development of objective criteria for Defense to ensure its decisions on realignments are “not biased and are appropriately analyzed.”

The panel also rejected an increase in TRICARE fees and deductibles for service members and their families that the Pentagon requested earlier this year. The House-passed version of the bill includes modest increases to some TRICARE drug co-pays.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration. More details from the committee markup are expected to be published next week.

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