Take a page from Goldwater’s playbook

For the past two years, the Armed Services committees of both the House and Senate have refused the Pentagon’s request to create another Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). If the Pentagon’s leaders are serious about getting Congress to create another BRAC to eliminate its excess overhead, they can take a page of the playbook that Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and I used in 1985.

As President Reagan began his second term in 1985, the nation, as it does now, faced a problem of an escalating federal deficit. And it was clear that defense spending, which had risen by 28 percent in real terms in Reagan’s first term, was going to decline significantly (it actually declined by 10 percent in real terms). Goldwater, who had become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that same year, was concerned that the Pentagon was not doing enough to reduce its excess overhead and therefore would have to jeopardize readiness and capability to conform to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law. 

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Shortly after taking over the chairmanship, the senator summoned me to his office and asked why the Pentagon had not closed a single base in Reagan’s first term. I explained that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed in former President Carter’s last year in office prevented us from closing a base unless we gave Congress a year’s notice and completed an economic and environmental study that could be challenged in court.

Prior to the enactment of that law, the Pentagon could just announce that it was closing a base.

Goldwater and I agreed that to demonstrate how much excess base capacity the Pentagon had, which was 40 percent above our needs, I would send the Senate a list of bases we would close if we could. When the Senate held a packed hearing on the list, it became clear to the Congress and the public that there were an overwhelming number of bases that needed to be closed. As a result, the Congress agreed to create the BRAC process. Under this process, the administration would propose a list, which would be vetted by an independent commission whose members were appointed by the president and the Congress, which could add or subtract bases. The president could accept or reject the list in total but could not cherry-pick. If the president accepted the list, he would then forward it to Congress, who could also accept or reject the list in total. In effect, the politics would be removed.

Initially, the Congress authorized four BRACs: 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. The process worked very well the first three times, and the Pentagon was able to close some 300 bases, resulting in about $100 billion in savings. However, in 1995, when the commission added bases in Texas and California to the Pentagon’s list, President Clinton, who was concerned that the closures would affect his reelection bid in two of the largest states, accused the commission of having a political agenda, even though he had appointed the commission’s chairman, and after sending the list to Congress privatized the bases. This diminished the economic impact of the closures in Texas and California by protecting the bases, at least for a time.

This so outraged the Congress that it refused to authorize another BRAC for a decade. And in 2005, when another commission was authorized, the Bush administration grossly overestimated the potential savings, outraging the legislators and further diminishing the credibility of the process.

To regenerate the process, President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his staff should take a page out of the Goldwater playbook and make public a list of bases they would close if they could. Such a list would force the Congress to realize that, like 25 years ago, maintaining excess infrastructure is not a smart thing to do when the defense budget is declining. 

Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of Defense from 1981-1985.