Even as members of Congress continue to fan the flames of the Abu Ghraib scandal, another military scandal of Congress’s own making has been largely overlooked.
In a blow to the Pentagon’s efforts to modernize and streamline the U.S. military, the House of Representatives recently voted to delay the Pentagon’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) process by two years. President Bush’s threat to veto the entire defense authorization bill if it contained anti-BRAC language barely kept the process alive in the Senate. Still, getting another BRAC round — recognized as necessary by military analysts and the General Accounting Office — should not be this difficult.
BRAC opponents have repeatedly said, given the current situation in Iraq and the ongoing war on terrorism, that now is the wrong time to be closing military installations. On the other hand, America’s military planners say that not only can BRAC be done in a time of war, but it is also necessary now more than ever to offset spiraling defense costs.
In a November 12, 2003, memo, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote, “BRAC 2005 can make a profound contribution to transforming the Department by … providing the means by which we reconfigure our current infrastructure into one in which operational capacity maximizes both war fighting capability and efficiency.” Rumsfeld hammered home the need for BRAC by stating, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of BRAC 2005.”
Unfortunately, the desire of defense planners to close unnecessary bases has caused a furor in military communities and affected states. State and local lobbying has been so intense that during House subcommittee hearings on BRAC, Rep. John McHugh (R., N.Y.) expressed concern that postponing the upcoming BRAC round would mean that for the next two years, states would overspend on lobbying fees in the hope of holding on to their existing military bases.
Ironically, such lobbying rests on a fundamentally flawed foundation: that closed military facilities are unmitigated disasters for local communities. In fact, according to a December 2003 article posted on Area Development Online (a trade publication for site and facility planning), “revitalization success stories are stacking up” from communities affected by previous BRACs.
From Massachusetts to Texas to California, areas surrounding closed military bases are thriving, not just surviving, by converting airstrips, navy sites, and forts into private-aircraft maintenance facilities, cargo warehouse complexes, and industrial parks.
The concerns of some in Congress over whether the military can transform itself while it is being stretched thin by conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq may be genuine, but many in Congress are undoubtedly more concerned with keeping military bases open in their home districts — even if they are not military necessities.
The Department of Defense estimates that the 2005 BRAC round could yield as much as $6 billion in recurring annual savings. Thus, a delay of two years, as currently outlined in the defense authorization bill, will cost taxpayers at least $12 billion without any requisite gains in safety or military preparedness. This is money that could be put to better use. It could improve the quality of life for our men and women in uniform or be invested in modernized weapons systems.
The fact that America is at war and our military resources are stretched thin is seemingly not as important to some in Congress as making sure that the flow of federal money continues uninterrupted. Rep. Gene Taylor
(D., Miss.) summed up the attitude of many lawmakers who represent areas with large military installations when he said he would like to see BRAC killed entirely. In a 2003 discussion of BRAC, Taylor said, “I’m just adamantly opposed to it, and I’ll take every opportunity I can get to stop it.” But this outlook shortchanges taxpayers, troops, and the private sector.
In the end, the importance of BRAC is not limited to $6 billion in annual savings and better-prepared troops; rather, it is a make-or-break moment for one of the Bush Pentagon’s goals — transforming the U.S. military into a lighter, leaner, and more agile fighting force. Clearly, such a force can be better supported by a military infrastructure that reflects those fundamental changes. It is now up to Congress to determine whether the transformation continues or whether a few lawmakers manage to sidetrack the entire process as a result of their apparently insatiable desire to pork-barrel spend.
– Paul Gessing is director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union. Write to him at 108 N. Alfred St., Alexandria, Va. 22314, or visit www.ntu.org.