On July 19, Representative John Ratcliffe (R., Texas) offered an amendment, adopted by voice vote, to the “minibus” spending bill (also known as the “security-bus”) then making its way through the House. His addition was brief: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to propose, plan for, or execute a new or additional Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round.”
Or, in plain English: Congress won’t let the Pentagon close military bases and other facilities it no longer needs.
The process of losing this real-estate dead weight is called BRAC, and the last round was initiated in 2005, during the second Bush presidency. Since then, the Pentagon has clamored to begin a new round on grounds of fiscal responsibility and optimal defense readiness, but Congress won’t cooperate. In fact, the Ratcliffe amendment is not the first time lawmakers have banned the Department of Defense (DoD) from spending any money on the research necessary to perform BRAC correctly; similar language appeared in 2015’s $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.
Why the congressional obstructionism? The unavoidable answer is self-interest. Members of Congress don’t want to approve a new BRAC round because they’re worried it could lead to base closures in their districts, which in turn could mean fewer votes come Election Day. “Abusing taxpayer dollars to support wasting assets or rusting eye sores that are not maintained does not make constituents feel better,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen observed in an article on AEI’s website in July. “It only serves politicians.”
The result is billions in annual waste. By the Pentagon’s analysis, almost one-quarter of the facilities it maintains are no longer needed — regardless of modest increases in troop levels — but Americans are still paying to keep all those lights on. “The Army will be carrying the greatest excess overhead — 33 percent according to the study — while the Air Force will have a 32 percent surplus,” noted a recent open letter to Congress signed by 40-plus defense experts. “The Navy and Marine Corps combined will have 7 percent surplus” — which might not sound like much until you remember the sheer scale of U.S. military might, and the legion of civilian contractors and back-office personnel occupying these government jobs. Many of these bases have been identified as useless to American defense for decades, with some waiting for closure for more than half a century.
The cost is enormous. “We have too much [property], it’s too old, and it’s too expensive,” Lieutenant General John Cooper, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering, and force protection, recently told Federal News Radio. At present, and as mentioned in the defense experts’ open letter to Congress, the Pentagon calculates that it is saving $12 billion annually from past BRACs. Some $5 billion of that comes from the last BRAC alone, which closed less than 5 percent of excess DoD holdings. That means a more thorough pare down could produce more dramatic savings still.
Proceeding to a new round of base closings has the enthusiastic backing of the Pentagon and the vocal support of Secretary Mattis, on strategic grounds.
Proceeding to a new BRAC round has the enthusiastic backing of the Pentagon and the vocal support of Defense Secretary James Mattis, on strategic grounds — Mattis said in June that closing excess bases could allow the military to buy 120 Super Hornets.
Moreover, this is not a partisan issue. A few days before the House affirmed the Ratcliffe amendment, it voted down another Republican’s offering, this one introduced by California’s Tom McClintock, to pave the way for BRAC. The vote was split across party lines: Republicans voted against it 140–95, and Democrats voted against it 108–80. The vote was divided not by Democratic and Republican affiliation but by lawmakers who treat the Pentagon like a jobs program versus those who prioritize security and fiscal responsibility.
Of course, it is true that closing unneeded bases will cause economic disruption. Shutting down these wasteful facilities would make many defense contractors and facility personnel lose their jobs, and members of Congress are right to be concerned about such consequences.
But the good news, according to research from previous BRACs, as cited in the defense experts’ open letter to Congress, is that “nearly all civilian defense jobs lost were eventually replaced.” AEI’s Eaglen cited the examples of Bergstrom Air Base, which “turned into a thriving airport,” and the waterfront attractions at the former Philadelphia Navy Yard. “Nearly all communities recover well from closures,” she said. “As lawmakers look to reverse the military’s drawdown, they would be wise to right-size the bloated defense civilian workforce and unlock the economic potential of communities affected by base realignment and closure.” BRAC can be a route to greater economic stability in the long term.
“When we squander billions of defense dollars keeping obsolete military bases open to satisfy congressional constituencies, we directly rob our military forces of the resources we are reminded they need,” said McClintock while introducing his pro-BRAC amendment. The “minibus” has passed the House without his prudent addition, but as of this writing it has yet to clear the Senate. Perhaps when the House and Senate convene in conference, DoD can begin the new, necessary BRAC round so long overdue.
— Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.