Levin, Shaheen warn Pentagon not to bypass Congress on base closures

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on Thursday issued a stern warning to the Army not to try to bypass Congress to close bases.

Levin said that any attempt by the military to circumvent Congress would set back an already endangered Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission process “by many, many years.”

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“If our Army or any of the other services proposes something in the budget which is not compliant with the BRAC process, in other words front-running the BRAC process, it will be will be triply difficult to get a BRAC process going,” Levin told Army Secretary John McHugh at an Armed Services Committee hearing.

“It will set any possibility of such a process back many, many years if there’s an effort to obviate the law,” he said.

Levin was responded to a line of questioning from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who was raising concerns about testimony she received in a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday from Assistant Army Secretary for Installations Katherine Hammack.

The Pentagon has proposed — for a third year in a row — to begin a new round of base closures in 2017, in order to save money by reducing excess capacity, particularly as the military is shrinking.

But Congress once again signaled that it has no intention of approving new base closures, which are politically unpopular in Congress because any district that loses a base often takes a significant economic hit.

This year, Pentagon officials have suggested they have the authority to close bases on their own and don’t necessarily have to go through BRAC to do so.

“If we don’t get authorizations for BRAC 2017, you might see some bases listed in the budget request for 2016,” Hammack told Shaheen on Wednesday. “Because at this point in time, I don’t have the money to run the bases the way they should be run.

“And it is not appropriate due diligence on my part to continue in this manner,” Hammack added. “If I can’t run the buildings appropriately, if I can’t appropriately support soldiers then I am going to have to do something to ensure that I am not spreading an ever thin budget across a base that I can’t afford.”

On Thursday, Shaheen said it was "troubling" that the military might go around Congress to close bases, and she pressed McHugh to respond to Hammack’s comments.

McHugh said that base closures would only occur with congressional authorization of a new BRAC round, although he did also note “certain flexibilities” the military had to reduce excess facilities.

“In terms of an actual base closure round, that will only occur should this Congress give us the authority to do that,” said McHugh, who is also a former congressman.

“This Congress has provided us certain flexibilities, short of a BRAC, to make decisions on excess facilities and excess structure shedding, and we’ll certainly look at authorizations Congress provided us in the law,” he added.

Both Levin and Shaheen have declared their opposition to any new base closures. They argue that the savings aren’t as large as advertised, pointing to the last BRAC in 2005 that cost more than anticipated.

The Pentagon argues that the 2005 base closure round was an anomaly. Defense officials say that the Pentagon already has 25 percent excess capacity and the military will continue to get smaller, so it is wasting money by not closing bases it no longer needs.