WASHINGTON -- House lawmakers said Thursday they are opposed to a new round of military base closings in the United States and challenged Defense Department officials to provide tangible evidence of the need to reduce the number of installations.
Military bases are often the economic lifeblood of the communities that surround them and any discussion about shutting bases down is politically charged, especially at a time when the U.S. economy is still in recovery.
During testimony before the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, a Pentagon official would not say whether the Obama administration's yet-to-be submitted budget for 2014 would include a formal request for more base closings.
But John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary for installations and environment, said that as the defense spending drops and the number of troops in uniform shrinks, reducing excess overhead becomes essential. The money saved by shuttering underutilized facilities can be used to train and support the troops, he said.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., the subcommittee's chairman, said he's yet to see any compelling proof of the need for more base closings. Wittman also said the last round of base closings in 2005 was an "absolute failure" because it cost billions of dollars more to carry out than initially projected.
"I have not heard anything today that indicates there is a rational basis to pursue (base closings)," Wittman said.
Guam's congressional delegate, Madeleine Bordallo, who is the subcommittee's top ranking Democrat, said she agreed with Wittman.
With defense budgets and the size of the military both shrinking, there are more bases and facilities than the Defense Department can support, according to defense officials. The Army is cutting its troop strength to 490,000 by 2017, down from about 570,000 at the height of the Iraq war. The Marine Corps is dropping by 20,000, to a force of 182,000.
The Air Force also is drawing down. Hundreds of older aircraft have been retired and thousands of active-duty personnel have been cut over the last several years, creating excess space at Air Force installations.
But the Pentagon needs approval from Congress before it can move ahead with the base closing process.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last year had proposed two rounds of base closings in 2013 and 2015, but there was no enthusiasm among lawmakers for closing facilities in their states and districts during an election year and Congress rejected the proposal.
During an August 2012 speech in Monterey, Calif., Panetta said that he wasn't surprised by the decision, particularly given the state of the economy. But he said the pressure to save money by getting rid of excess infrastructure makes future closings inevitable.
The Defense Department "is going to need to take a hard look at what we do in terms of support infrastructure as we seek to reduce overhead costs," Panetta said.
Geography makes supporting a new base closure round risky politics especially for House members. Backing legislation that could end up closing a job-providing base in or near their district might cost them their seats.
"It's local politics. It's jobs," said Tim Ford, chief executive officer for the Association of Defense Communities. "These are economic drivers, and no one wants to be blamed for a base closure."
The base closures in 2005 have been heavily criticized by lawmakers. The Government Accountability Office said in a report last year that the price tag for the 2005 round hit about $35 billion - 67 percent more than the initial estimate of $21 billion.
The 2005 round of closings was the largest and most complex ever, and involved not just closing bases but relocating troops and supporting the activation of Army brigade combat teams. Despite the upfront costs, the GAO said the Defense Department is reaping annual savings of nearly $4 billion by closing 24 major bases, realigning two dozen more and eliminating about 12,000 civilian positions.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said the state of the U.S. economy is fragile and pushing ahead with more base closings is going to increase government spending at a time when the federal budget needs to be cut.
Conger said he agreed that any base closings would require spending up front and would generate savings later.