Senior House Democrat pushes new BRAC legislation, with possible support from Senate

The House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat said Thursday that he plans to reintroduce legislation that would allow the Defense Department to conduct a new round of base realignments and closures (BRAC). The idea has proved to be a losing proposition on both sides of Capitol Hill for several consecutive years, but could gain new support from the Senate in 2017.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said his bill would authorize a new BRAC round in 2019 in an effort to help reduce an excess real estate inventory that, according to the Pentagon, currently stands at about 22 percent. Congress has not authorized any base closures since a 2005 round that lawmakers have criticized for taking too long and being too costly.

“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.

He has made the same argument for several consecutive years as one of only a few lawmakers willing to publicly advocate for more base closures, but has made little headway with colleagues. Last year, he offered and later withdrew a BRAC amendment from the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the annual Defense bill over jurisdictional issues; it never saw a vote on the House floor.

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But Smith said he was heartened by some glimmers of support from the Senate this year.

Earlier this week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) planned to undertake a serious examination of base closures during the new Congress rather than simply passing legislation expressly forbidding another BRAC, as Congress has done in every year since 2012.

“We need to talk about it, and I think it has to be considered,” McCain said, while adding that he considers the existing BRAC process to be an act of “cowardice” on the part of Congress, since it leaves individual base closure decisions to an independent commission.

“And frankly, the last commission made some very bad decisions, for example, closing Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Florida,” he said. “Now, we only have one base on the whole east coast, Naval Air Station Oceana. All things should be on the table, but like sequestration, it’s kind of a cowardly act because it shows that we can’t make the tough decisions ourselves.”

Smith’s bill attempts to deal with that concern by strengthening 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 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.

Also, DoD would generally be barred from making closure recommendations that wouldn’t net cost savings within 20 years, and individual BRAC projects would be subject to congressional review if their actual up-front costs exceed DoD’s projections by 25 percent or more. Those provisions are designed to address lawmakers’ objections about the 2005 round, which cost 67 percent more than originally promised.

The Pentagon argues that any future BRAC round would be unlike the 2005 version, which was more focused on “transformation” of the military’s stateside footprint than infrastructure reductions. Officials also point out that round is continuing to yield savings of about $4 billion per year and all five BRAC rounds, taken together, have cut DoD’s annual costs by about $12 billion.

Despite some imperfections, the BRAC process remains the only viable way to actually reduce the military’s infrastructure, said Lawrence Korb, who oversaw manpower and installation issues as an assistant secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration.

“People don’t understand why you need a BRAC to close bases,” Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. “Up until the late ’70s, the Pentagon could decide what bases it wanted to open or close, and then the Congress put an amendment on that said before you did that you had to basically do all these studies that could be challenged. Of course, it brought the process to a halt, so I worked with the late Sen. (Barry) Goldwater to deal with this thing, and that lead to the setting up of the BRAC.”

In a report to Congress last April, the Defense Department said a parametric analysis across its entire portfolio of real estate, from airplane hangars to barracks and training ranges, showed that it had 22 percent more stateside base capacity than it could use, based on any existing or reasonably expected personnel or equipment levels.

That figure may prove to be marginally off-the-mark if Congress approves President Donald Trump’s plans to grow the military by an additional 50 ships and 90,000 soldiers, but as the department also pointed out in the report, each previous BRAC round has only cut the military’s total infrastructure by an average of 5 percent.

“The focus of every BRAC round is to reduce excess where needed in balance with the need to have room for changed missions, tactics, and technology while enhancing military value and achieving recurring savings,” officials wrote in April. “Individual closure decisions weigh the unique characteristics and military value of infrastructure compared to the specific requirements of forces and functions. Thus, less excess capacity is a logical and beneficial side effect of BRAC.”