Congress not warming to proposed new base-closing commission

Resistance flashed by members of both parties, especially in New England.

Since its inception in 1988, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission has aimed to get around what are viewed as parochial interests in Congress that seek to protect hometown economies from Pentagon efforts to save money by shutting down domestic facilities. But within hours of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s Thursday announcement that he is proposing a new BRAC round, the signs from Capitol Hill amounted to “not so fast.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., issued a detailed critique of the Defense Department’s entire previewed budget, charging that “the president has abandoned the defense structure that has protected America for two generations.”

McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin told Government Executive that while the committee is awaiting details on BRAC, the chairman is “very concerned about the proposed force reductions, believing the shift ignores the lessons of history on the need for ground forces that we’ve learned over and over again. The drawdown is what creates the basis for a new BRAC round,” he said, but the drawdown itself must be addressed first.

In the Senate, Connecticut senators Joe Lieberman, an independent, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, joined with Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney in calling the BRAC proposal dead on arrival.

“There is sweeping bipartisan opposition to another round of BRAC at this time,” they said in a joint statement. “Typically, the actual savings from BRAC come long after the costs of implementation; another round would do nothing to help the Pentagon hit the targets outlined in the Budget Control Act.”

Switching to the potential impact on Connecticut, the three said, “as a delegation, since 2007, we have secured more than $80 million in new military construction [for submarine base] New London, shoring up its infrastructure and value to the Navy and our submarine fleet. We will continue to work with the Navy and community and base leaders to strengthen [the base] and secure its future.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin was traveling Friday, but told attendees of a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Thursday that he usually supports the BRAC process “even though it is a tough sell.” But he would not favor closing domestic military bases until more U.S. bases overseas are shut down.

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., on Thursday convened a meeting with defense industry representatives and staff for regional lawmakers to strategize on how to protect the Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass., which employs 30,000 people, according to the Boston Globe.

On the labor front, John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said a new BRAC would be premature until “there is a comprehensive review and closure of overseas bases and we know the outcome of whether Congress will step up to the plate, increase revenue and avoid sequestration, so we know the full extent of the budget threat we are addressing rather than taking steps now that might not make sense if Congress fails to act.”

He added past BRAC rounds have disrupted lives and harmed communities “in the name of savings that never truly materialize . . . We must remain vigilant to ensure that DoD does not predetermine BRAC sites by selectively and arbitrarily reducing civilian personnel through reorganizations, reductions in force and ‘starvation’ so that the military value of an installation is diminished in advance of a review by an impartial panel.”

In presenting the Pentagon’s plan to slash $487 billion from Defense over 10 years, Panetta shied away from estimating savings from a new BRAC round.

The last round, which was enacted in 2005, affected 800 sites and required federal office moves that are only now being completed, was estimated by the Government Accountability Office to have cost $35 billion to implement. That would make it the costliest round yet, with savings projected over 2006-2025 of about $11 billion.

One service that would welcome another BRAC is the Air Force. During a Pentagon briefing Friday, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said he anticipated the service would close bases because many were simply realigned rather than closed during the 2005 round and since then the number of aircraft has dropped by 500. Under the proposed cuts, the Air Force would lose 10,000 personnel and its bases today are part of what Schwartz called “20 percent excess infrastructure.”

Bob Brewin contributed to this report.

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