Congress pushes back against another round of BRAC

Thursday - 2/16/2012, 5:13am EST

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The number of troops in the military is shrinking. Therefore, Defense Department officials say the number of military bases in the Pentagon's real estate portfolio needs to follow suit.

But try telling that to members of Congress, many of whom doubt that another round of base realignments and closures would save any money.

President Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request for the Pentagon released this week reflects DoD's desire to launch not one, but two rounds of Base Realignments and Closures BRAC over the next five years. While the notion has some support in Congress, even top DoD officials have described the response their proposal got this week as "frosty."

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)

Members are loathe to support another round of BRAC even while the final pieces of the 2005 round still are falling into place. Lawmakers are not excited about the prospect of having bases potentially closed in their own states or districts, and especially if it's not going to save any money — a position many members have adopted.

"I've supported every round of BRAC since I've been in Congress. But the 2005 round of BRAC will not even break even until 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office," said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). "That means for 13 years, it's going to cost more money to have BRAC than it would without it. Having the Pentagon suggesting two more rounds of this leaves me scratching my head a little bit."

Thornberry's district includes Sheppard Air Force Base and a separate facility that assembles nuclear weapons. His comments came as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey testified about the proposed DoD budget Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. Dempsey and Panetta defended the decisions they made in implementing the $487 billion in 10-year cuts DoD has to make under the Budget Control Act Congress passed last year before the House and Senate armed services committees this week.

Troop cuts are too large

Some members, particularly on the GOP side of the aisle, now believe those cuts are too large. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that's the reason he, too, is against more BRAC rounds.

"I think we've reduced our force to an unacceptable level," he said. "To then bring our infrastructure down to an unacceptable level to meet that is something I don't want to do as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There's going to be opposition up here."

Michael McCord, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense in the Pentagon comptroller's office

The main data point most Congressional opponents are relying on to argue against more BRAC is a 2009 Government Accountability Office report that analyzed DoD's execution of the 2005 BRAC round. It found DoD's costs to close and consolidate bases were 67 percent higher in the real world than what the independent BRAC commission had estimated, mainly because of one-time costs relating to factors such as new military construction on surviving bases and information technology realignments required by the movement of military personnel formations from one installation to another.

But Michael McCord, the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense in the Pentagon comptroller's office, said that just because the 2005 round failed to produce short-term savings isn't necessarily proof that would be the case with the new BRAC rounds.

"BRAC has been done in the past and it's gotten savings more quickly. So there's evidence there," he said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "The 2005 round did have the longest payback of the previous five rounds, but they all do pay back."

And another BRAC or two is the only reasonable answer to the realities of a shrinking military, Panetta told lawmakers Wednesday.

"If you try to do this on a piecemeal basis, we know what's going to happen. It's not going to go anywhere," he said. "The only effective way to do it is to put it in this kind of package. I also understand the costs involved though. BRAC costs a hell of a lot of money to do the cleanup and the other things that need to be done."

Cheaper options for BRAC

In Wednesday's hearing before the House panel, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) suggested a formula for solving that problem: close the base, but don't clean up the real estate.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.)

"I know the law may require us to do this environmental cleanup, but I think we make the laws here in the Congress, and we can change those laws," he said. "If a local community doesn't want to take over a facility, we'll plant some trees and lock the gates and come back in a hundred years. By that time, whatever the environmental problem was will be much less."

Bartlett asked DoD officials to get back to him with some estimates about how much money the department could save with his lock-the-gates BRAC idea.

DoD's new budget does not include any assumptions about how much money it will either spend or save from a new round of BRAC since the Pentagon doesn't yet know whether Congress will sign off on the idea.

And McCord said the Pentagon probably will not send Congress any projections along those lines; it will simply ask for authorization to form another BRAC commission. Making a sales pitch with specific savings numbers, he said, is not a good idea.

"In my view, at least, it would not be productive," he said. "We'd have to say that we want to close this many Army bases, this many Navy bases, this many Air Force bases. That's what you'd have to do in order to make a good cost estimate, and it makes it look like you've already made up your mind. That's a very dangerous place to go with BRAC."

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