This BRAC round is the first in the past decade and the fifth overall. The first round took place in 1988. The process is politically charged, with members of Congress vying to save installations in their home states.
The members come from varying backgrounds and include former lawmakers and Cabinet members, retired military officials, and a Clinton administration Pentagon appointee. They have just four months to comb the country, visiting installations the Pentagon has slated for closure or realignment and holding public meetings. By Sept. 8, they must submit their own recommendations to the White House.
Bush has selected Anthony Principi, who headed the Department of Veterans Affairs until earlier this year, to lead the commission. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee lauded his work in the department and as a Senate staffer during a brief confirmation hearing Tuesday and sent his nomination to the floor for a vote, most likely by the end of the week. The Senate also is expected to confirm the other nominees sometime before May.
Principi stressed during the hearing that he and the other commission members will be impartial judges of the BRAC process, and will make decisions based principally on national-security interests. Other important factors, he said, are savings generated by closing a base, the economic impact on local communities, community infrastructure and environmental issues.
But for many lobbyists representing communities fighting to keep military installations in their towns, the commission roster could portend what will happen in this new BRAC round. Commission members have the power to strike installations from the Pentagon’s list or add other bases they decide have little military value — and their backgrounds could play a major role in their decisions.
“These are people who represent different sides of the equation of the BRAC” process, said Ken Beeks, vice president for policy at Business Executives for National Security. “There are some who are going to look less favorably on some kinds of BRAC recommendations.”
For instance, Samuel Skinner, President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff and a selection of House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R), hails from Hastert’s home state of Illinois. Skinner could be in a position to save the state’s military depot facilities, long targeted for privatization. Former Utah Rep. James Hansen (R), another Hastert pick, was the House Depot Caucus leader and could also be inclined to save the military’s industrial base.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) pick, former defense researcher Phillip Coyle, could support keeping open the department’s labs and research facilities. And the four retired generals and flag officers on the list could be inclined to favor their individual services.
“What you really want as a community is somebody who knows the missions you’re doing that are being accomplished at your base,” said Paul Hirsch, president of Madison Government Affairs and a veteran BRAC lobbyist. “You just hope that the people that get selected and get confirmed by the Senate are people who understand the issues and sympathize where you’re coming from.”
That said, “obviously you have fair people on this commission and they’re going to make outstanding choices,” added Hirsch, who worked on the 1991 BRAC commission.
Over the last three BRAC rounds, the commission has changed 21 percent of the Pentagon’s recommendations for base closures and realignments. During the last BRAC round, in 1995, the commission made 42 changes to the Pentagon’s list, upending nearly 30 percent of the department’s recommendations.
However, the commission’s power has been skewered a bit for this go-around. Previous commissions needed only a simple majority of votes to recommend that another military installation shut its doors. This time, seven commission members must agree to add a base to the list.
So, essentially, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s base-closure list could closely resemble the final cut unless commission members “can come up with a clear case that another base be added to the list,” said retired Adm. Bill Natter, a former Navy legislative-affairs chief who is lobbying for Florida on the BRAC process.
To make any changes, commission members must “carry an argument with clear logic,” Natter said.
This year’s BRAC is closely tied to Rumsfeld’s plans to transform the military into a high-tech, more agile fighting force. Bases that do not fit into his plans for the future are likely to be closed or realigned. Meanwhile, the future of the military’s training centers and ranges — essential to preparing troops for combat — appears to be fairly certain, analysts said.
But debate over the 2005 base-closure round goes deeper than what is transformational and what is not. There essentially are two camps, one in favor of moving forward with BRAC and one wanting to stall this round for another few years, Jack Spencer, senior defense policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said in a speech March 16.
On one hand, base closures give the Defense Department the opportunity to shed unneeded infrastructure and save billions in an increasingly tight budget environment, Spencer said. But others argue that heavy deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere make the future too uncertain to change dramatically the military infrastructure in the United States and abroad.
But the process is moving forward, and the commission’s work will be wrapped up in the next year.