Lobbyists work base-closing issue; effectiveness unclear

Defense analysts question whether the millions of dollars being spent on lobbying activities will pay off.

As the Pentagon prepares its 2005 base closure list, communities across the country are pouring millions of dollars into the pockets of lobbyists and consultants to shield hometown bases. But some defense analysts wonder how much influence these hired guns ultimately have over the Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

For the past year, delegations have increasingly sought precious face time with Defense Department officials to plead their case, but defense analysts say the impact lobbyists and other base advocates have is unclear.

"Service officials and others in the Defense Department may meet with lobbyists or consultants as a courtesy, but as far as the Pentagon's own decision-making process goes, it is completely closed," said Christopher Hellman, director of the project on military spending oversight at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

That does not stop lobbyists from seeking to influence the nine members of the new BRAC commission that is taking shape in Washington. With the Pentagon's role in the process winding down and commission nominees gearing up to evaluate department recommendations, communities have one last chance to influence the process.

Once the Pentagon's list is submitted to Congress and the commission May 16, members will have less than four months to visit bases and hold regional hearings so local officials and lobbyists can be heard, Hellman said.

"Commissioners make site visits during this process, at which time communities are able to make their case," Hellman said. "You can't preclude anybody from speaking at these things, and that can include lobbyists."

Daniel Else, a defense analyst and base closure expert with the Congressional Research Service, agreed that the BRAC commission likely has more leeway to listen to community issues. "But they're going to be mighty busy," Else said. "They'll have three and a half months of NoDoz and coffee to get through the process, which is going to be out in the open and probably pretty darn visible."

Although lobbyists and others seek to influence commission members, "it's probably going to be setting the framework for them," he said. "And everything they do will have to be justified in their final report."

Else noted that the Pentagon has long encouraged states and communities to invest in local infrastructure and other improvements, rather than using their assets to pay for lobbyists. But "most communities with something to lose want to leave no stone unturned," he said. "If you don't spend the money and your base gets put on the list, then the finger pointing is going to start."

Besides, he added, "who are you going to vote for? The one who tried to do everything possible. And those are the guys who are hiring the lobbyists."