Pentagon tries to sell skeptical Congress on new rounds of base closures

Facing a hostile crowd in Congress, Pentagon officials Thursday tried to make the case that lawmakers need to accept more base closures as important medicine to cure Defense budget problems.

Dorothy Robyn, deputy under secretary of Defense for installations and environment, appearing at a subcommittee hearing on the defense budget, tried to rebut the frequent arguments made in Congress against two new rounds of closures prescribed by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Congress has expressed wide bipartisan opposition to BRAC in this year’s budget hearings.

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Robyn said more base closures are needed because a reduction of 100,000 troops over the next five years means that less infrastructure is necessary. Robyn said the Defense Department already has about 20 percent excess infrastructure with the current force structure.

“That, in a nutshell, is why we are asking for additional BRAC rounds,” Robyn said. “The math is straightforward.”

Before she was questioned, Robyn answered two frequent criticisms in Congress. She said that additional base closures in Europe, rather than domestically, would not be sufficient to get the necessary infrastructure cuts.

For those who have pointed to the last BRAC round in 2005 as evidence it takes too long to achieve savings, Robyn said that was atypical because it also involved significant transformations in the middle of a war. The first four BRACs, she said, saw savings much more quickly.

House members did not sound convinced.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, said he was “vigorously opposed” because he was also opposed to the Pentagon’s reduction in troop levels.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said that the upfront costs associated with BRAC make no sense — even if it will eventually see savings — because the Pentagon must reduce its budget now under the Budget Control Act.

Courtney also complained that it was unfair of the Pentagon to ask for new BRAC rounds when the department hasn’t “given us a scrap of information in terms of savings.”

The Pentagon’s 2013 Defense budget, which requests BRAC rounds in 2013 and 2015, did not indicate how much savings or initial costs would be included with the base closures. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the Pentagon didn’t want to include savings from BRAC as part of the $487 billion that’s being cut from the Defense budget over the next decade.

Robyn and Army Brig. Gen. Christopher Bishop tried their best to convince Congress at Thursday's hearing, saying that the Pentagon has saved $100 billion from the first four BRAC rounds, and will start seeing savings from the fifth in 2018.

Robyn also issued a warning that if Congress did not approve BRAC, the Pentagon would use its “existing authorities” to begin closing bases, which would be worse for the local communities affected.

“If the department acts outside the BRAC process, it’s severely constrained in what it can do to help locally,” Robyn said.