Congress Again Roundly Rejects BRAC Proposal

U.S. Army Europe closes the final installation in Heidelberg on Sept. 6, 2013. Dee Crawford/U.S. Army

The Defense Department argued again Wednesday for another round of base closures and lawmakers roundly rejected it with explanations why Congress was unwilling to put jobs in their home districts at risk in order to reduce Pentagon spending on excess base infrastructure.

"I'm disappointed the department again requested" in its budget that a Base Realignment and Closure Commission be set up in 2017, said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness.

At a Subcommittee hearing with four Pentagon officials, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also said she was "very concerned about this proposal."

Both Shaheen and Ayotte urged the Defense Department to find other ways to cut costs, and also urged the military to spend more on the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who has the Norfolk naval base in his state, tried to explain the political dilemma for lawmakers posed by BRAC.

"I can see why DoD likes the BRAC process," Kaine said. However, once the commission is set up, every community in the country with jobs at stake in a military base "has to lawyer up, has to lobbyist up," Kaine said.

In response, John Conger, the acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, said an independent BRAC making closure recommendations that would have to be accepted or rejected as a total package was the best way possible to address the problem.

If base closures were left to the normal legislative process, "you'll have more lawyering up," Conger said.

Congress has been fending off another BRAC round since the last one in 2005. In 2011, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began making the case for another round but got nowhere against charges that the previous round in 2005 did not produce the cost savings that were predicted.

The 2005 BRAC commission originally estimated that it would cost the Pentagon $21 billion to follow its recommendations. However, a Government Accountability Office report said the real cost was about $35.1 billion.

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that he would not press for a BRAC round in 2015 or 2016, but he argued for one in 2017, which would guarantee making base closures an issue in the 2016 presidential and Congressional elections.

At the hearing, Conger rattled off statistics showing that the Defense Department currently "operates an enormous real estate portfolio encompassing over 562,000 buildings and structures on 523 bases, posts, camps, stations, yards and centers." The replacement cost of that real estate covering 27 million acres would be about $850 billion, Conger said.

"We maintain that the department has well documented the excess capacity" that now exists, Conger said. The excess capacity will only grow as the military reduces the number of troops following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Conger said.

The most forceful case for another BRAC round was made by Katherine G. Hammack, the assistant Secretary of the Army, who has frequently clashed with Congress on the issue.

Without going into specifics, Hammack suggested that the Pentagon might have other legal methods of closing bases if Congress rejects another BRAC round.

"If Congress fails to authorize another round of BRAC, this defense drawdown is likely to repeat a very unfortunate historical pattern of hollowed-out forces dispersed across hollowed-out installations," Hammack said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com

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