Lawmakers launch preemptive strike against future base closings

House lawmakers launched a preemptive strike against further base closures on Thursday. 

The move comes before the Obama administration releases its 2014 budget, in anticipation the Pentagon might call for more closures.

The Pentagon requested two new BRAC rounds in its 2013 budget in order to deal with a $487 billion reduction over the next decade, but that proposal went nowhere in the House or Senate and was not included in the 2013 Defense authorization bill.

The Pentagon now faces additional cuts under sequestration, which officials say only exacerbates the problem of having excess infrastructure when troop levels are reduced.

The Pentagon hasn’t said yet whether it will include a request for new rounds of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) in the 2014 budget, but House members from both parties made clear Thursday that there’s little appetite in Congress.

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Lawmaker after lawmaker expressed skepticism and hostility at a House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee hearing Thursday toward the Pentagon’s rationale for potentially new rounds of closings.

Subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said that he rejected the arguments that more closing swere necessary.

“Where is the excess infrastructure? I have yet to see any empirical evidence that would provide even the slightest degree of support for another round of BRAC,” Wittman said.

Pentagon officials say that cutting military infrastructure is a difficult but necessary step to cut long-term costs. The process of closing bases costs money up front but leads to long-term savings.

John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary for installations and environment, told the panel that a 2004 study had found 24 percent excess infrastructure within the military. The 2005 round of closings cut just a sliver of that, he said, and the military is getting smaller from the 2004 level.

“Under that simple math, and under that original study’s data, we can conclude that there’s space,” Conger said.

But the hearing played out much like the discussions between Capitol Hill and the Pentagon last year, in which lawmakers focused on the higher costs of the last process in 2005, or they suggested making infrastructure cuts abroad in places like Europe.

Lawmakers are opposed because the closing of bases will cause a disproportionate impact to someone’s district with a loss of jobs and a hit to the economy — and nobody wants it to be in their backyard.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who saw closures in his district when he was a congressman, pleaded with lawmakers repeatedly at hearings to allow for cuts to little avail.

It did little to convince Congress, however, and the four DOD officials at Thursday’s hearing appeared not to have any more success.

“I am adamantly opposed to pursue a BRAC at this time,” Wittman said at the conclusion of the hearing. “We have many, many other issues to deal with. This is not the time.”

Others joined in the anti-BRAC parade. Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) questioned why the Pentagon didn’t cut alternative energy programs at bases to achieve savings rather than close bases. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said that with the military already having to cut under sequester, it shouldn’t spend the additional up-front costs to close bases.

“It’s a fair thing to say you have to spend money to make money in these kinds of situations,” Conger responded.

If the Pentagon does include a request for base closures in its budget, Wittman gave it zero chance of getting approved by the Armed Services Committees.

“I cannot imagine in my mind any basis on which Congress would pursue a BRAC,” he told The Hill after the hearing.