Describing the current policy landscape as "turbulent" would be understating things.
But some things haven’t changed. Like the perennial effort to convene a new Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) to look at shuttering military bases that the Pentagon doesn’t need. And the pushback from members of Congress who are hell bent on shutting down any discussion of this.
They’ve been successful with the shutdown for 11 years now. But this year may be different.
In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense budget last week, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainVoto Latino CEO: Sinema will have a 'very difficult pathway' in 2024 reelection Meghan McCain rips 'selfish' Sarah Palin for dining out despite COVID-19 diagnosis Poll: Sinema approval higher among Arizona Republicans than Democrats MORE, who chairs the Committee, accused his colleagues of "cowardice" in refusing to even talk about convening a process to decide which facilities should be closed and repurposed.
The Pentagon has estimated that the previous base closure rounds have saved taxpayers about $12 billion each year. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who pledged to go after Pentagon waste in his confirmation hearings, should be interested.
Will Congress be?
Their cowardice is of course based on the fear that they might lose jobs at bases in their districts — jobs supported by the military money rolling in every year without much scrutiny. Yet a 2013 study by the Government Accountability Office found that more than half of the communities who went through a base closure in the last round, in 2005, actually gained jobs. And in 62 percent of them, real per capita income rose higher than the national average.
The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard closed in the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, jeopardizing 10,000 jobs. Today the site houses a vibrant mix of retail, housing, and manufacturing businesses and has more than replaced the jobs that were lost.
The dirty secret is that the same members of Congress who extol the virtues of private enterprise, and enthusiastically embrace the drain-the-big-government-swamp project, want no part of that project when it comes to their own backyard.
There are two keys to the success of a new round of base closures and realignments.
First, the process has to be independent. At the Senate hearing, Senator McCain offered the unwise thought that having an independent commission make the decisions might not be such a good idea — that maybe members of Congress should do it.
But putting the authority in independent hands was the brilliant stroke that has kept parochial politics largely out of the process since the beginning. Having members of Congress jockeying for position among themselves, all of them certain that their own bases need to be kept off the list, is a surefire recipe for impasse.
The second key is planning. The way to avoid being caught flat-footed is to be on your toes.
The base closure process builds in years of advance notice that gives communities time to figure out their redevelopment plans. The Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment exists solely to help communities adjust to military transitions like contract cancellations and base closures. They have decades of experience in giving base communities advice on their redevelopment planning and access to federal resources to implement their plans.
Let’s see some of those free enterprise, entrepreneurship-loving members of Congress put their energies not into blocking all talk of base closures, but into embracing the possibilities of land and facilities in their communities freed up for community use.
Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society.
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