DoD tries to calm Congress over new BRAC request

The Defense Department is trying to assuage lawmakers’ fears about closing bases that are unneeded by the department and are costing extra funds to run.

The Pentagon has been pleading with Congress to conduct another round of Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) for years.

The 2018 budget rollout was no different; the Trump administration asked lawmakers to approve a BRAC study that would close and consolidate bases in 2021.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment Peter Potochney tried to outline how that round of BRAC would work if Congress gave the go-ahead in the 2018 defense authorization bill.

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“If the Congress were to authorize BRAC in the ’18 [defense] authorization bill, upon enactment we would begin organizing and start conducting the analysis. It’s an extraordinarily comprehensive and frankly difficult analysis to conduct and I know that from experience,” Potochney said during a June 6 Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies hearing. “It would lead to recommendations that the Secretary of Defense would provide to the commission in April of 2021. So, we would have a robust amount of time to do this extensive and frankly exhaustive work.”

A 2016 report from the Pentagon stated DoD is paying to maintain 22 percent more military base infrastructure than it can put to practical use. DoD thinks it can save $2 billion a year by closing and consolidating bases.

“As Department of Defense leadership has repeatedly testified, spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wrote in a memo accompanying the report. “We urge Congress to provide the department with authorization for another round of base realignment and closure.

BRAC has not been conducted since 2005. The five rounds of BRAC in the past ended up saving DoD about $5 billion a year. But DoD states that the last round was not as successful as a future BRAC could be.

“The department is not happy with what happened in the 2005 BRAC round in terms of cost take-out. We rebalanced the force in some useful ways, but we think a future BRAC round would have much different financial ramifications,” Jamie Morin, then-director of cost assessment and program evaluation, said last year. “We just need to move forward on this to enable a whole bunch of cost takeout to drive more combat capability out of each taxpayer dollar.”

Still, the political appetite for BRAC is fairly low.

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Experts say Congress is wary of BRAC because it offends their parochial interests. Closing a base in a lawmaker’s district takes away jobs and may affect the economy negatively. That’s never something a lawmaker wants to report to his constituents.

However, the tide may be slowly changing.

Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says congressional resistance to BRAC is faltering.

Opposition to BRAC “is weakening for a couple reasons. One, the Pentagon is quite insistent that they do have excess capacity,” Preble told Federal News Radio. “Even if President Trump gets his wish of dramatically increasing military spending, it’s still not entirely clear where some of that money will come from, but he says some of the additional funding will come from waste. A key aspect of waste inside the Pentagon budget is excess overhead.”

A few members of Congress already stepped forward with their support for another BRAC round. House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) introduced a BRAC bill earlier this year for a 2019 round.

“We should not be wasting hard-earned taxpayer money to maintain excess infrastructure that DoD has determined it does not need,” Smith said in a statement.

Smith’s bill strengthens the role of Congress in the next BRAC round. Unlike in previous rounds, in which a list of proposed base closures was prepared by an independent commission, based on DoD recommendations, and then presented to lawmakers as a single take-it-or-leave-it package, the Smith-proposed 2019 round would give lawmakers an additional opportunity to stop the BRAC process if they disagreed with DoD’s going-in assessments of how much infrastructure it needs to support future force levels.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is also in favor of BRAC. McCain said Congress showed “cowardice” for its inability to work on BRAC, and the committee’s ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said he is considering BRAC as well.