Closing a retail location isn’t usually a huge deal. Organizations make decisions on opening, maintaining and closing locations based on all the factors you might expect: potential customers in the area, demographics, traffic of the location, the business success of the location once it’s open and other factors. J.C. Penney is closing 40 stores this year, including some that have been open for decades. Sears has closed locations for the past decade or so. Radio Shack is shutting down more than 1,700 of its stores that once dotted the landscape like Starbucks; General Wireless will take over 4,000 more former Shack stores. Did we really buy that many adapters and CB radios in the 1970s? But when your decision-making process adds a highly-charged political layer, and input from 535 people, all with their own opinions and agendas, it becomes a whole different story. Objective decisions go out the window; emotions, politics and hyperbole rule. Hence, my surprise at the takeway from last week’s House Appropriations Committee hearing: at least some members of Congress don’t completely hate the idea of letting the Department of Veterans Affairs close or consolidate some of its facilities. One member of Secretary Bob McDonald’s leadership team even compared it to the Base Realignment And Closure procedure Congress has used in the past to shrink the footprint of the Defense Department. “We need a framework where everybody is going to agree to close certain facilities,” Helen Tierney, VA’s assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer, told the committee. “We need something like a BRAC process that would be fair, where a board would evaluate our facilities and Congress would agree with those closures based on their ranking.” The reception to the VA argument is striking because of two other high-profile cases of footprint shrinking in government. Both have met with far less success than the reception the VA team got this week. One, of course, is the ongoing ping pong match between Congress and the Pentagon over a round of the real BRAC, which would be the first since 2005. One branch’s example: the United States Army will shrink from just under a half million soldiers today, to perhaps 450,000, or maybe as few as 420,000, in the coming years. The Army’s Assistant Secretary for Installations, Energy, and Environment, Katherine Hammack, told the same House Appropriations Committee, and then me, 24 percent of her department’s buildings are in “poor” condition by the Army’s measure, and 7 percent are “failing” — falling down. The entire Defense Department’s own budget request for FY2016 only funds 81 percent of the maintenance the agency needs to perform on its facilities — and still busts the Budget Control Act caps by $35 billion. If it passes at its current topline, the DoD Comptroller Mike McCord will have to figure out where to take another 7 percent out of the maintenance budget, while some of those 7 percent of Army buildings fall further down. Many members of Congress campaign on advocating for government to run more like a business. And most businesses anticipating a 15 percent drop in employees, and a potential 7 percent revenue decline, would want to reduce the amount of space they occupy to match the shrinking workforce. But the answer to the Pentagon’s request for another BRAC round has been “no” for the past several years, without even much discussion. And for now, there’s no reason to believe this year will be any different. The Postal Service hit the same wall in 2011 when it proposed even thinking about the status of 3,700 locations. Many of the locations USPS wanted to consider closing are located in areas that are readily served by either other USPS locations, or by third-party vendors that provide most of the same services a full-scale post office would. But USPS has done worse than the Defense Department. Congress has slowed Postal Service efforts to make its 2015 operations better fit its 2015 customer base. So it’s noteworthy that instead of having the door slammed in his face, as Congress has done to USPS and DoD, McDonald and his team received a far warmer welcome. In fact, the only problem the former Proctor & Gamble CEO seemed to have in selling his plan was marketing. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) warned McDonald of something he no doubt already knew — BRAC is a dirty word in Congress. “Whatever you’re doing, do not call it BRAC,” Fortenberry said, drawing knowing laughs from the other members. “This is a positive thing. We are trying to make you more efficient and effective, not close stuff in communities.” The Pentagon and Postal Service have tried that approach too, but so far, it hasn’t worked. Maybe McDonald will have better luck.
Francis Rose is host of Federal News Radio’s In Depth radio show, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m.