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Time for a new BRAC

This September marks the tenth anniversary of the completion of the report of the most recent Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) commission. Our commission reviewed the Department of Defense’s efforts to bring our nation’s military infrastructure into line with the needs of our armed forces by transforming its structure and reducing costs through closing or reducing the size of unneeded installations.

The work was part of a process to streamline DoD infrastructure in a manner that would be acceptable across the political spectrum. The BRAC process was accomplished five times from 1988 through 2005—but no new rounds have been undertaken in the past decade.

{mosads}In this time of great fiscal constraint, we cannot continue to deny DoD the opportunity to rationalize its vast excess infrastructure.  In March, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter asked Congress to authorize a sixth BRAC round.

The time for a new BRAC is now.

Some members of Congress oppose authorizing a new BRAC—especially those who are concerned bases in their districts might be considered for closure. Others worry they might be required to vote for a package of closures some of their constituents could oppose.

Still others point to DoD’s overestimation of the savings that would occur as a result of the last BRAC. The General Accounting Office found that DoD’s $47 billion savings estimate was too high a figure—and that $10 billion was more likely.  Still, $10 billion is a significant reduction, especially in today’s budget climate.

The difficulties of agreeing to a new BRAC for members cannot be overestimated. But communities have shown there is life after BRAC, even when facilities are closed.

In testimony before Congress, Secretary Carter cited the example of Lawrence, Indiana, which created an enterprise zone, a community college, recreational facilities, and commercial sites when Fort Harrison closed in 1996. The city not only replaced all the jobs lost when the base closed, but created even more.

Like Lawrence, most communities have fully recovered from closings and, in the process, have produced stronger tax bases in lieu of military ones.

Without a BRAC commission, realignments and closings will still take place, in a kind of “stealth” BRAC.  Fiscal constraints allow DoD no choice but to reduce the number of its personnel, cut training and operations and maintenance costs, and defer modernization, all of which will have an adverse impact on the communities and businesses that bring military communities to life. This is taking place right now.  

These reductions have a serious economic impact on local communities–who are helpless to counter the Pentagon’s decisions. They would fare better under a BRAC that would provide transparency on decisions for states and local defense communities, and the means to advocate before an independent BRAC Commission. In 2005, the Commission reversed DoD recommendations to close installations in a number of cases, based on what we learned from community leaders and base visits.

Under current law, the president and secretary of Defense have the authority to close or realign bases on their own, without public input.  The president may choose to exercise that authority if Congress does not support a new BRAC, and DoD’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 includes language indicating he will do so. 

The other advantage to a BRAC, compared to decisions made by executive fiat, is that it takes politics out of the discussion, and eliminates the “not in my backyard” syndrome. Under existing BRAC authorizing legislation, both the president and Congress are required to adopt or reject the commission’s final recommendations as a package: neither can add or subtract individual recommendations.

After a decade of inaction, now is the time to do what’s right for our men and women in uniform. Spending dollars on infrastructure that does not serve their needs is inexcusable.

Let’s get on with the job.

Principi was secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and was chairman of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.


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