Authorizers, appropriators spar on Walter Reed

The House appropriators’ decision to keep the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center open as long as combat operations overseas continue will likely trigger a turf battle with defense authorizers who want to claim their stake in base realignment and closure (BRAC) decisions, according to congressional sources.

The clash could come in the wake of an already intense lobbying campaign by the Pentagon, the Army and the White House to leave the decisions of the 2005 BRAC Commission intact.

The BRAC proposal to close Walter Reed came after careful deliberation by the Army and was not driven purely by the desire to save money, according to Keith Eastin, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment. “This is one [recommendation] that really had some meat on it,” he said during congressional testimony.

Some on the House Armed Services Committee are hesitant to overturn the 2005 BRAC decisions already signed into law.
Authorizers both in the House and Senate are less certain than appropriators about the wisdom of keeping Walter Reed open and feel the issue carries the potential to open up a Pandora’s Box, with other lawmakers trying to overturn other closure decisions.

Several Senate authorizers have expressed concern about reversing BRAC decisions and are analyzing several alternatives to ensuring proper care for the wounded soldiers.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, suggested the acceleration of construction projects at Maryland’s Bethesda National Naval Medical Center and Fort Belvoir, Va., two facilities slated to absorb Walter Reed patients after the hospital’s closure in 2011.

Warner opposes reopening the BRAC process and has asked the Senate Appropriations panel to add $123 million in additional outlays to the emergency bill to accelerate construction at Bethesda and Fort Belvoir. As part of the Armed Services panel, Warner vowed to review the Pentagon’s BRAC plan “to ensure capabilities and facilities will exceed the current patient care offered to our military community.”

Meanwhile, in the House, the Armed Services Committee could maneuver to try and delete the appropriators’ provision in order to claim jurisdiction over the issue, according to a congressional source.

After that, the issue would be open up for debate within the committee. Any move at this point is still in an early-discussion phase.

The chairman of the House Readiness Subcommittee on Armed Services, Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), said that he was concerned that because of BRAC, the Army stopped paying attention to Walter Reed and ceased putting money into it.

“During a time of war you make it difficult to shut it down,” Ortiz told The Hill in a short interview last week. Building new facilities could require a lot of time given that they require a lot of advanced medical technology. While markup on the 2008 defense authorization bill is still weeks away, the committee will discuss BRAC as matters of military readiness and veteran care take priority, he said.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) is cosponsoring a bill by Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to prohibit the closure Walter Reed altogether.

Holmes Norton fought hard to get Walter Reed off the chopping block two years ago. When the BRAC Commission decided not to reverse its decision to close the medical center, the District of Columbia formed a Local Redevelopment Authority committee to get input on redeveloping the site.

But the city could only get the property if it was deemed surplus to the federal government. The property had to go through a formal screening process where other federal agencies could stake claim in it. If the property was not transferred to other federal agencies, it was to become surplus and could be transferred to the local community. Both the Government Services Administration (GSA) and the State Department submitted requests for the site, which were approved.

The two agencies would have split the property in half, with GSA being in dire need of more office space and the Department of State planning to build a chancery complex. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated the fair market value of the Walter Reed property at about $300 million.

Meanwhile, the D.C. community around the hospital (Ward 4) made the case for shared redevelopment. The community would like to see more involvement in that prime property even if Walter Reed stays open. One of the potential ideas is to build a new firehouse. The community also wants to offer assistance to the troops and have some community use of the property.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee whose district encompasses Fort Belvoir and the new medical facility that is slated to be built there, said it was an easy decision to support keeping Walter Reed open even though that could mean the new facility in his district could be delayed or, potentially, not built at all.

Moran added that the medical center would not have been ready by 2011 and that congestion on the local road (Route 1) is far from being solved in order to facilitate proper access to the medical facility.

“I do not want Walter Reed to be closed before Fort Belvoir is ready,” Moran said in an interview. He said the medical facility at Fort Belvoir would have to be built anyways because of a “flood of wounded military personnel from the Army that are going to need care.” But without decongesting the roads, the facility will be inaccessible, he warned.

“We have to put the welfare of the troops ahead of our own interest,” he said. “We have an ongoing first-class medical facility, and that is more important than having a new hospital in my district.”

The Navy, meantime, has responded to congressional requests regarding the acceleration of construction at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. According to a source, the Navy looked at how soon the medical facility can be built and came back with the answer that it would cost hundreds of millions more just to get it done six months earlier.

At press time it was still unclear what Senate appropriators would do about Walter Reed in their markup of the 2007 emergency supplemental.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the former chairman of the defense-spending panel, has never liked the idea of closing Walter Reed during times of war. His office, however, declined to say whether he is going to offer an amendment at the markup, which is scheduled for today.