Congress Hates Military-Base Closings, but Can Chuck Hagel Do It Without Their Approval?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Pentagon's budget sets up an uphill battle with Congress by requesting further domestic base closures and realignment, but the Defense Department's top official could try to give members the slip.

As part of the department's fiscal 2015 budget request, the Pentagon wants a round of base closures and realignment—known as BRAC—for U.S. bases in 2017.

"We think BRAC is a smart position to have, as you know we have called for it again, we're going to continue work through all this," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at an Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. "I've got some options as secretary of Defense in law … through a section of Article 10."

The secretary didn't specify what options he could have in regard to reducing overhead, but a House staffer suggested last month that under a provision of federal law dealing with the Defense Department, Hagel could close bases and only have to notify Congress beforehand—rather than ask its permission.

If the secretary wants to close a base with at least 300 civilian employees or cut more than 1,000, or more than 50 percent, of civilian jobs at a base, he must notify the Armed Services committees as part of the department's annual budget request, according to federal law.

That notification must include an "evaluation of the fiscal, local economic, budgetary, environmental, strategic, and operational consequences of such closure or realignment."

What Congress could do to stop Hagel is unclear, but Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has pressed Pentagon officials—including Bob Work, the president's deputy Defense secretary nominee—to clarify where any legal authority the Pentagon could have comes from.

"I believe that Congress should be in the position to approve BRAC, and there should not be a runaround done," Ayotte said last week.

As Pentagon officials have acknowledged, members are loath to close bases that could cost jobs back in their home states and would cost money up front before savings kick in. Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said before the budget was released that Defense officials were hearing that their base-closure request would be "dead on arrival."

Rising costs from a 2005 recommendation for a round of base closure and realignment left some members of Congress hesitant to try again. A commission originally estimated that it would cost the Pentagon $21 billion to follow its recommendations, but, according to a 2012 GAO report, the cost ended up around $35.1 billion.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., touched on that during Wednesday's hearing, adding that she "certainly strongly disagrees with another BRAC round at this time."

But the Defense Department is planning to follow forthcoming recommendations to close or realign bases across Europe, which aren't subject to congressional approval. The Pentagon has reduced its infrastructure in Europe by 30 percent since 2000.

But Shaheen suggested that members of Congress do need to know what recommendations are being made about base closures in Europe, and throughout the world, before they can consider requests to close or realign bases in their own backyards.

And Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, suggested during his questioning at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Wednesday that the European bases are central to the military's overall mission.

General David Rodriguez, head of the U.S. Africa Command, agreed, saying the bases are "critical for our mission in Africa."

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