Defense lobbyists mobilize for Obama administration's round of base closures

A specialized corps of defense lobbyists is springing into action ahead of President Obama’s expected request for a new round of military base closures. 

Lobbyists with experience in the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process expect an influx of new business when the White House details the proposal in its official budget request to Congress on Feb. 13.

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The BRAC process presents a high degree of difficulty for lobbyists because it requires exhaustive knowledge of the armed services, Capitol Hill and the communities affected. 

“There is a level of expertise with this. You have to know the communities and understand what they need,” said Cece Siracuse, a senior associate at Hurt, Norton & Associates who headed up congressional affairs for the 1995 BRAC Commission. 

Under BRAC, an independent panel of nine commissioners is tasked with recommending which military bases should be closed to increase efficiency. The process can be nerve-wracking for communities near defense installations, which stand to lose jobs if their local bases gets the ax.

Siracuse said lobbyists can help protect a base, but it’s crucial for a community to get involved as well. 

“As a lobbyist, we can be value-added. But a community’s best asset will be the retired officers or community members who have an expertise with that base, who live there and are in touch with those that are active,” Siracuse said.

Her firm already lobbies for a number of clients that could be affected by a new BRAC round, including the Twenty-First Century Partnership, centered on Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and Friends of Liberty and Fort Stewart, focused on Fort Stewart, Ga., according to lobbying disclosure records.

Lobbyists questioned by The Hill said they are starting to hear from former clients about Obama’s BRAC request, and some are starting to consult towns and cities on BRAC issues.

Anthony Principi, a Veteran Affairs secretary during the Bush administration and the 2005 BRAC Commission chairman, is getting into the game with a new consulting firm called the Principi Group.

“We think we can bring value to anybody who has military installations who may be facing realignment or closure,” Principi said. “The extent that we can offer advice to them, what to look for, is what we hope to provide. For folks who need some help, that’s all.”

Principi left his position as a lobbyist with Pfizer last year to start the new venture. He said the firm is not representing anyone at the moment, and he has no plans to register as a lobbyist.

Some communities have already hired lobbyists in anticipation of the next BRAC round.

In November 2011, Cassidy & Associates was hired by the Military Support Coalition, located in New Bern, N.C., to lobby on BRAC issues, according to the firm’s lobbying registration.

“Now, communities are pretty damn savvy, so you better know what you are talking about,” said Barry Rhoads, president of Cassidy and the 1991 BRAC Commission’s deputy general counsel. “If they approve a BRAC, you will see a lot of hires. But proactive communities already have representation.”

Cassidy has an active BRAC lobbying practice that includes clients in Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina, according to records.

BRAC is also a concern for businesses that operate near military bases.

On its website, the Indian Head Defense Alliance, which protects the Indian Head, Md., naval base, said the base’s proposed 2005 closure would have cost the area 3,000 jobs, more than $150 million in payroll and $41 million in local contracts. 

“The BRAC 2005 recommendation to totally close Indian Head was defeated at the eleventh hour by our efforts combined with our consultants, Hyjek & Fix Inc., and the total support of our elected officials and dedicated Navy employees,” the alliance said on its website.

Hyjek & Fix still represents the alliance, as well as West Valley Partners, focused on Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., and the Niagara Military Affairs Council, which is concerned about Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y., according to records.

The jobs argument is a compelling defense for a base, but several lobbyists said it’s not as important as the “military value” — how an installation can contribute to future Pentagon missions and the forces’ operational readiness.

“It’s all about military value, military value, military value. You have to demonstrate military value,” Siracuse said.

Jim Noone, a lobbyist at Mercury/Clark & Weinstock, agreed.

“Those are the magic words: military value. That will be the key criteria the BRAC Commission will use. It always has been,” said Noone, who has lobbied for communities since the 1991 BRAC Commission.

Noone said the state of Connecticut prepared for BRAC by providing funding for new projects at the Groton, Conn., submarine base, including building a new facility for Navy divers — an added value for the military.

Noone lobbies for Connecticut and MassDevelopment, a state economic development group that would be concerned about Hanscom Air Force Base and other military installations during BRAC, according to records.

There’s a chance that BRAC might not happen next year because lawmakers in both parties are opposing the request. Because the Obama administration needs congressional approval for another BRAC round, the Pentagon didn’t list any savings from the process in its budget request.

“We did not want to tie any savings to it because, very frankly, we need the Congress to authorize it … if we had put numbers in there and then Congress didn’t do it, it would have … undermined our whole budget,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week.

Lobbyists said a BRAC round is unlikely for next year, though 2014 or 2015 are possibilities. Noone said it’s possible Congress will shoot down the request this year.

“I think there is a good chance in an election year that could happen,” Noone said. “Election years are difficult for politically hard decisions to begin with, and this is a tough political decision to make during a down economy.”