Congress Revs Up Resistance to a New BRAC Round

Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., led the markup of the bill. Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., led the markup of the bill. Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

Congress expressed little enthusiasm last year when President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget proposed a new round of defense facility closings under the Base Closure and Realignment Commission process. So it was no surprise when a House Armed Services subcommittee on Thursday cleared by voice vote language in the broader defense authorization bill that would head off any Pentagon attempt to solve its budget woes by shutting down more bases in lawmakers’ home districts.

In the markup led by Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., the Readiness Subcommittee agreed to send the full panel a version of the bill (H.R. 1960), which would “prohibit the department from proposing, planning or initiating another round of Base Realignment and Closure.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in an April speech pushed a fiscal 2014 version of BRAC with an up-front cost of $2.4 billion, calling the process “a comprehensive and fair tool that allows communities a role in reuse decisions by them for their property.” It also “provides redevelopment assistance,” he said. BRAC saves money in the long term, Hagel said.

The 2005 round, however, which still requires funding, ended up costing $14 billion more than the $21 billion originally estimated for implementation, according to a June 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow in defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Government Executive prospects for a new BRAC round don’t look good, and it was an “uphill battle to begin with.” But given Defense’s constraints under the Budget Control Act and the need to cut $52 billion in 2014, he said, “hopefully, members of Congress will start to realize” it’s unwise to enact additional restrictions on closing excess facilities, on top of potentially rejecting Pentagon proposals for compensation reform in health care.

Without BRAC, the Defense Department will have to cut modernization programs more deeply, affecting force structure, readiness and end strength, Harrison said. Resistance in Congress “is usually about parochial political interests, based on ‘not in my back yard,’ or no base closed or jobs lost in their districts,” he said. “They have a problem putting those parochial interests ahead of broader national security interests.”

The 2005 BRAC, Harrison noted, which cost four times the amount of the previous four rounds, is still saving $4 billion to $5 billion a year, though it still takes time to recoup up-front costs. “It was an anomaly in that it happened when the Defense budget was growing and so involved more realignments than closures, and realignment requires new costs for shutting down, moving and building a new facility,” he said.

The current proposal “is a more traditional BRAC,” said Harrison, whose think tank on Wednesday will assemble four research groups to conduct a defense reduction strategy exercise at which BRAC is likely to figure. On June 3, he added, a group of some 10 think tanks of differing views will release a letter to lawmakers arguing for a new BRAC round.

“Congress can run from BRAC, but it cannot hide,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information with the Project On Government Oversight. “The selfish and the self-aggrandizing on the Hill will succeed on BRAC this year and proclaim proudly that they beat it down -- thereby diverting funds needed for readiness to protect pork. But as the future unfolds, excess bases will be closed one way or another,” he said in an email. “BRAC is not the only way of doing it; clearly, the era when we could expect Congress to face reality through the BRAC process is long gone.”

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