Back in BRAC: Advocates Say It's Been Too Long

Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was trying again this week to persuade his colleagues that they should allow a round of military base closings and realignments in the interest of saving money.

The answer was expected to be a terse “no,” as it has been since the last Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) in 2005, which made changes to hundreds of military installations but didn’t save as much as Congress had hoped.

But the Defense Department and lawmakers such as Smith think that with the armed forces shrinking again after the withdrawal from Iraq and the impending return from Afghanistan, the Pentagon should shed more property.

Smith planned to introduce an amendment to the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill (HR 1735) that would authorize a new BRAC round for 2017. An actual committee vote was likely; Smith planned to withdraw his amendment due to referral issues, an aide said, and instead seek a floor vote.

His amendment would set up a nine-member independent commission appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation. The panel would only be authorized to meet during calendar year 2017.

The plan would require the Defense secretary to certify the need for a BRAC round with the fiscal 2017 budget submission and, if so, that base closures would result in net savings within six years. The secretary’s closure recommendations would be made by April 15, 2017. The commission would then hold hearings on the recommendations and present its own findings to the president by Oct. 1, 2017, including an explanation of any changes it made from the list compiled by the Pentagon. The president would have two weeks to either approve or disapprove of the list.

Under the proposal, Congress would be able to put the brakes on the BRAC process by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, though that could be subject to a presidential veto.

Matter of Savings

Smith is a frequent critic of fellow lawmakers for rejecting cost savings proposed annually by the Defense Department, including base closures, higher Tricare copayments and fees and retiring certain weapons platforms. In recent years, the Washington Democrat has argued that, even without the budgetary pressure of sequestration, the Pentagon should be given leeway to shutter the bases it says are no longer needed with a smaller military.

Defying Pentagon requests, Congress has not authorized a BRAC since the last round took place in 2005. Lawmakers have cited the cost of the previous round as well as the likely upfront expenses of a new round as reason to deny more base closure authority. The process also remains a politically unpopular issue on both sides of the aisle with lawmakers unlikely to put bases, and consequently jobs, in their home states and districts at risk.

But Smith argues, and his amendment states in its “findings” section, that the 2005 round was focused more on realignment than closure, as it took place during a military buildup rather than a drawdown, unlike previous rounds.

In saving the BRAC issue for the House floor, Smith is by no means guaranteeing a vote on his proposal. The House Rules Committee will parse hundreds of amendments submitted before the bill hits the floor during the second week of May. During floor debate on the fiscal 2015 defense bill, Rules blocked a number of contentious proposals, including ones from Smith to start a new BRAC and to permit the Navy to lay up half its Ticonderoga-class cruiser fleet.

The bill’s readiness section prohibits a new BRAC round, which Smith’s amendment would remove from the bill. Both Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., oppose new base closures on the grounds that facilities can easily be closed but not so easily reopened.

The House’s legislation also would require the Defense secretary to report to Congress a 20-year structure plan for each military service and a worldwide inventory of infrastructure. The report would compare the plan with the infrastructure inventory to determine the infrastructure needed to support future force structure.

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