Lobbyists gear up to fight base closings

Lobbyists gear up to fight base closings

They are not B-1 bomber or Trident submarine contracts, but in these lean defense years-and lobbyists who remember the Cold War '80s consider them mighty lean-a contract with a state or community attempting to dodge the next round of military base closings can help make ends meet.

The work of the independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the widely dreaded BRAC, was designed to be beyond politics and presumably high-rent lobbying. But there are ways in which a smart Beltway operator can be helpful to nervous states and military towns if Congress authorizes a new BRAC to begin reviewing the status of bases.

For example, the Spectrum Group, based in Alexandria, won contracts with Arizona and Florida to develop reports on how they could protect their remaining bases. Spectrum touts the Arizona report, which was delivered last summer, as the nation's first "comprehensive, statewide look at how to best prepare military facilities against the threat of future base closures and downsizings."

States and communities are "mostly looking for information gathering, not influence, at this stage," said Mike Stacy of the Bethesda consulting firm Burdeshaw Associates, which has bid on state contracts for similar work.

"[The Defense Department] has to find money somewhere ... and facilities are a relatively low priority. A lot of people expect another BRAC round and don't want to be a victim," he said. Stacy added that "there appears to be a growing movement" among the affected communities to seek help from within Washington's heavy hitting consulting ranks.

Robert Hurt of the D.C firm of Hurt, Norton and Associates, noted that "at least dozens of communities will be affected by another round of BRAC," and said his company has worked with a variety of public and private organizations set up to preserve local bases.

In a previous BRAC round, Hurt said, his firm advised the city of Warner Robins, Ga., and a coalition of local business groups there, which chipped in to purchase and remove housing near the local Air Force base, thus eliminating a noise problem that could have factored into the BRAC's decision on the fate of that base.

"If the bullets came close to your base the last time, you want somebody to study the public records and see why you were targeted and what you can do better," Hurt said. "It's a tremendous amount of work to analyze all this data."

Perhaps not tremendously lucrative, however. Sources said firms are generally making about $10,000-$12,000 per month for this type of work, not a fortune, but it beats digging ditches. Some contracts can be as low as $3,000 per month, according to one source who explained that, occasionally, the political benefits of helping a given community outweigh the dollar value of the contract for the firm here in Washington.

Another BRAC round is no certainty, but Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., will be pushing to add BRAC language to the defense authorization bill expected to be marked up in committee next month. And Defense Secretary William Cohen earlier this year signaled the administration's interest in a speech before the Illinois Legislature, saying, "I know that BRAC is a four-letter word in most places, but I must tell you the vast sums we waste on unneeded facilities is robbing our men and women in uniform of needed training, weapons modernization and quality of life."

The Defense Department estimates the three previous rounds of BRAC, in 1988, 1993 and 1995, will generate $25 billion in savings through FY2003. An additional round would save $3 billion annually, according to the Pentagon, which is an appetizing prospect to defense planners and members of Congress alike.

Texas, naturally, is going its own way in the effort to fend off the BRAC. The state had cast about for a D.C.-based consultant but withdrew the contract offer when officials became concerned that the arrangement might run afoul of a state prohibition on lobbying by state agencies. The state's Washington office and the congressional delegation are handling all the "interface" with Congress and relevant federal agencies, according to Charlie Thompson of the Texas Office of Military Affairs. "The best lobbyists we have are our elected officials," Thompson added.

The Texans are expecting their bases to receive close scrutiny from a new BRAC commission. "When the BRAC comes around again, every single one of our bases will be a potential target," Thompson commented.

The state has adopted a long-term strategy to improve the outlook for its facilities, including offering to improve the Texas highway system to accommodate deployments, "yield for tanks" signs would indeed make Texas feel like a "whole other country", new education incentives for in-state military personnel and financial aid to communities to help them reduce costs for the local base.

In addition, the Air Force, which saw three Texas bases clobbered in previous rounds, "has been particularly aggressive in forming partnerships between bases and communities or government entities" to preserve the remaining facilities, Thompson said.