CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
March 19, 2012 – 10:54 p.m.
Pentagon Pursues Additional Base Closures
By Megan Scully, CQ Staff
Senior defense officials are warning that congressional resistance to the Pentagon’s request for more base closures will not necessarily deter them from shuttering unneeded installations across the country.
The Defense Department has argued that planned reductions in military personnel and force structure will leave the department with excess infrastructure that is too costly to maintain, particularly as defense budgets decline after a decade of historic wartime growth.
As a result, the Pentagon is expected to soon present Congress with draft legislation that would establish formal base-closure rounds in 2013 and 2015.
Defense officials have not said how many bases they would like to trim, or how much money they would aim to save. In the United States alone, the military has about 500 permanent installations, including more than 300,000 buildings and about 200,000 other physical structures, with a replacement value of more than $800 billion.
The Air Force, which was spared significant closures in the last Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round in 2005, has estimated that more than 20 percent of its infrastructure could be considered excess capacity.
For their part, however, many in Congress are reluctant to close jobs-producing bases that fuel the economy in districts and states around the country. Lawmakers from both chambers and both parties have said they would fight any efforts to authorize another formal BRAC round, which would include the creation of an independent commission tasked with trimming the military’s domestic infrastructure.
But if Congress refuses the Pentagon’s request for further BRAC rounds, the Defense Department has made clear that it has other options it can exercise to shed unnecessary infrastructure.
“Given the fiscal and strategic imperatives we face, if Congress does not authorize additional BRAC rounds, the department will be forced to use its existing authorities to begin to realign and close bases,” Dorothy Robyn, the deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, told the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee on March 8.
Since the early 1990s, Congress has authorized the creation of four bipartisan base-closure commissions, which studied the Defense Department’s recommendations and received input from affected communities before issuing a final list of bases to be closed or realigned. Lawmakers then voted on whether or not to accept the commission’s recommendations as a whole, rather than on a base-by-base basis.
But the Defense Department can unilaterally close smaller installations that employ fewer than 300 civilian personnel and make other significant changes at bases without congressional consent. The Air Force, for instance, announced in its fiscal 2013 budget request its plans to close the Air Reserve Station in Pittsburgh, a move that does not require sign-off from lawmakers.
The military has the “authority to do small things under current law. They’ve done small things under law,” Senate Armed Services Chairman
The department, meanwhile, also has some limited authority to close larger installations outside of the formal BRAC commission process.
Pentagon Pursues Additional Base Closures
Until the late 1970s, the Defense Department had unlimited authority to close bases. But a rarely used 1977 law (PL 95-82) requires the Pentagon to notify Congress as part of its budget request of any plans to close specific bases. Congress then has 30 legislative days or 60 calendar days (whichever is longer) to block the move. If lawmakers don’t act, the Defense Department can shutter the base.
Advantages of an Orderly Process
Some base-closure experts consider the law to be little more than a speed bump for the department — albeit a time-consuming one that requires the Pentagon to present lawmakers with extensive documentation on the environmental impact of base closures, as well as other information on economic, strategic and operational consequences of each closure or realignment.
Others, however, argue that the formal BRAC commission process is in the interests of both Congress and the Pentagon.
These experts argue that the process forces defense officials to conduct a thorough review of the military’s basing needs that is then evaluated and tweaked by an apolitical commission.
“In theory, the BRAC process as it has been constituted creates a process where all installations are equal,” said Brian Lepore, a base-closure analyst at the Government Accountability Office. The commission, Lepore added, helps provide assurances that the process is as clear and fair as it can be.
David Berteau, an analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies who served on BRAC commissions during the 1990s, said the formal BRAC process also forces the Defense Department to consider its long-term force structure plans before making any decisions on individual bases. The commission process also allows lawmakers to plead their case to the commission and make their public arguments against closing facilities in their areas, Berteau added.
The Defense Department also argues that a formal base-closure process, rather than ad hoc closures, benefits local communities. During the last three BRAC rounds, defense officials worked with communities to help develop plans for the transition after bases closed. But if the Defense Department works outside the BRAC process, local communities would have no role in the disposition of military property.
“If the department were forced to begin the closure and realign process using existing authorities, communities would have to fend for themselves to a much greater degree,” Robyn told House lawmakers.