wfedstaff | June 4, 2015 7:25 pm
Editor’s Note: This story is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, A New Vision for Federal Buildings.
In each of the past four years, the Pentagon has proposed a new round of base closures and Congress has rejected every one so far. But with or without lawmakers’ approval, the military’s footprint is shrinking. The Defense Department has hinted that it may move to close some bases even without Congress’ explicit permission.
In its last two budget submissions, DoD has accompanied its request for another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round with a warning that if Congress doesn’t approve one, the administration will be forced to seek “alternative options” to trim the military’s excess infrastructure, currently estimated at more than 20 percent.
DoD does indeed have options outside of BRAC. While officials emphasized that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has not yet decided on whether he’ll exercise them, existing law provides for one-by-one base closure processes the department could implement unilaterally, as long as Congress is given fair warning.
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“It’s a much more cumbersome and far less attractive process for us, but it is the other legal avenue we have right now,” said Mike McCord, DoD’s comptroller.
Congressional hostility toward BRAC
But another de facto BRAC alternative is already playing itself out as a natural consequence of budget-driven military downsizing. Congressional hostility to BRAC has always been driven by members’ fears about job loss in their local communities. But that situation is already beginning to unfold, as a shrinking military places fewer demands on its existing bases.
The Army, for example, has 18 percent more infrastructure capacity than it needs and is already spending an estimated $500 million per year on upkeep for facilities it would prefer to divest. But that estimate is based on an active-duty force of 490,000 soldiers. The service is already in the process of drawing down to 450,000. Budget caps in current law would mean some Army bases would lose up to 15,000 personnel over the next five years along with the civilian jobs that support them.
Absent the ability to close bases, the Army is in the process of making its own decisions about which of its bases it will leave partially vacant.
“That makes communities very nervous, because it’s not a very transparent process,” said Tim Ford, the CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, an advocacy group for state and local governments around military bases. “DoD is downsizing, but they’re having to do it without a BRAC. That means they’re essentially hollowing out our installations in a slow way and that’s the biggest concern for communities. You wake up one day and you realize your local base has lost a thousand jobs in a slow dribble.”
Just like their congressional delegations, Ford said, the mayors and governors in his group strongly dislike the idea of another BRAC round. But the idea of gradually idling installations worries them even more. Not only are the jobs gone, but the vacant real estate the bases once occupied can’t be put to any other productive use.
“If you give communities a choice between the hollowing out of bases that’s happening right now and BRAC, I think a quiet majority of them would say they’d rather have BRAC,” Ford said. “It’s at least a clear process, it gives them input and an ability to help influence the process and there’s transparency. And if I’m in a place where I feel good about how my base is positioned, I’ll probably benefit in the end, because every time we stop spending dollars on bases we don’t need in other places, it’s going to mean more dollars that come back to my installation. But there’s a caveat to all of this: Even though they can say all of that in quiet conversations, it’s very hard for any of them to come out publicly and say that they support a BRAC.”
Indeed, BRAC, as currently constructed, is about as politically toxic a subject as there is on Capitol Hill. Federal News Radio contacted a half-dozen lawmakers who have previously expressed some willingness to consider DoD infrastructure consolidations; none would comment for this story. And given the politics of BRAC, the Defense Department also acknowledges that it’s probably not going to get anywhere by repeating its request for another round unless the process is changed somehow to make it more palatable to members of Congress.
“Those conversations have started,” John Conger, DoD’s acting assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment said in an interview. “I think it goes without saying that there were a sufficient number of criticisms about the last BRAC round that Congress will want to have different authorizing legislation if they’re going to give us BRAC authority again.”
The last round, begun in 2005, is the exemplar lawmakers cite most often for their opposition to authorizing another one. BRAC 2005 cost 67 percent more than originally estimated, partially because the military was growing at the time and officials decided to use BRAC to “transform” the military’s footprint rather than shrink it. By the end of the round, DoD’s facilities, which were already estimated at 24 percent more than necessary, were reduced by just 3 percent, and several new and expensive facilities were constructed. The 2005 round did garner $4 billion in annual savings, but given its $35 billion in up-front costs, that round, taken individually, won’t reach the break-even point until 2018.
But DoD argues that any future BRAC would look much more like the four rounds that happened before 2005, when the government used the process as it was first envisioned: to close large swathes of Cold War-era bases all at once with a single up-or- down vote that attempted to remove politics from the decision-making process. Taken together, the five BRAC rounds are saving $12 billion per year.
|SAVINGS FROM BRAC|
|(TY $Billions)||Major Base Closures||Minor Closures and Realignments||Minor Closures and Realignments||One-Time Costs ($B)||Annual Recurring Savings ($B)|
One proposal, advanced last year by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, would have allowed DoD to move forward with a new BRAC round, but with restrictions designed to ensure the process would result in closures and savings rather than another round of transformation.
That proposal failed with little debate, but in budget hearings over the last several weeks, other members also have signaled varying degrees of willingness to give the military at least some new authority to reduce its infrastructure via a revised BRAC process.
“Let’s change the whole name of this thing to the Military Installations and Savings Commission and the acronym would be MISC,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “If there’s excess military infrastructure that could be looked at, whether it’s housing, warehouse space or other types of office space that could be eliminated, transitioned to higher and better community use, that could actually be empowering to a community. A segmented commission that looks at various types of excess infrastructure might be a smoother pathway to get us all to where we ought to be with increased efficiencies and savings, yet high levels of sensitivity to communities who, in many times, have built their livelihood and well-being around military installations.”
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DoD sees some base closures as only way to get savings
Conger said DoD is more than willing to provide input about ways to modify BRAC. But in the end, the only way to get the savings the department thinks it needs is to completely close at least some bases.
“If you close a building, you’re basically saving the utility and maintenance costs for that building,” he said. “If you close a base and move the functions of that base to another one, you lose the requirement for duplicate security staff, duplicate management staff, duplicate data centers. That’s where the savings come from. If you can get the same warfighting capability for half as much overhead, that’s what we’re striving for.”
To that end, the Pentagon says it used the European base-closure process it finished in January as a sort of practice run for the domestic base closures it hopes Congress will eventually authorize.
Conger said DoD used the same analytical rigor it would apply to any future recommendations to an independent BRAC commission and, during the process, any base closures that were contemplated in Europe were immediately taken off the table if one of the military services or combatant commanders said that doing so would compromise their capabilities.
“There were a lot of places where there were great business cases to reduce our infrastructure. A lot of the recommendations we looked at in this BRAC-like process would have saved a lot of money, but there were very strong operational reasons not to close a facility, so we didn’t,” Conger said. “I think it’s important to recognize that that’s what would come into play domestically as well.”
McCord said he believes Congress will eventually assent to another BRAC round. But he said the department has been reluctant to propose new legislative language of its own to modify the process, out of concern that doing so would compromise the original spirit of BRAC, which leaves final closure recommendations to an independent commission.
“When you start changing things, people assume you have a secret agenda and you’re trying to bias the process,” he said. “I think there’s some virtue in coming in with the same proposal every year and then trying to negotiate. Part of the problem is that we haven’t gotten an up-or-down vote on BRAC in many, many years. And failing to act on our proposal doesn’t give us any feedback on how to modify our proposal.”
For its part, the Association of Defense Communities held a conference dedicated to the subject of cutting DoD’s basing costs without actually doing away with bases.
Experts came away with recommendations that could help around the margins, including the sharing of municipal services like trash collection and sewer maintenance with local communities around military bases.
Ford, the group’s CEO, said efforts like that are extremely worthwhile and ought to be pursued. But none of the potential savings local officials found compared with what the department would achieve by divesting entire bases.
“When you put all of this together, there’s still a question mark around whether we’re solving DoD’s problems or whether we’re just spending a lot of time trying to work around tough decisions,” he said. “It was partly an exercise just to see if there’s a big solution we haven’t realized and I don’t think we’ve ever come up with an easy alternative to BRAC.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), whose state hosts numerous installations including the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk, offered one workaround to the BRAC impasse in a March hearing: Forget the independent process altogether, have the Pentagon send its own closure recommendations directly to Congress based on its best military judgment and let lawmakers fight it out.
“You do it on personnel and, if you do it on weapons systems and if you do it on everything else, you could do it on installations,” he said. “And yes, we would battle about it, and I’d fight to protect my thing and somebody else would fight to protect theirs and you’d probably get 75 percent of what you proposed. We can’t sit up here and say, ‘We’ve got to solve our deficit problem, but we can’t cut anything.’ The DoD always has it, in its province at least, to make recommendations to us about excess capacity that we then take into the political realm and put on our shoulders and we’re going to be held accountable for the decisions, as we ought to be. Our voters want us to be accountable.”
Read Michael O’Connell’s related story on how the General Services Administration is coming up with creative approaches for civilian agencies trying to consolidate their workforce, rethink their office space and dispose of excess properties.