Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (R-Texas), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has unveiled a plan he says will go after waste in the Pentagon budget. This seems remarkable, since Thornberry played a big role in the two-year budget deal that will boost military spending close to its highest level since World War II.
Thornberry's bill goes after bureaucratic bloat in the Pentagon’s support agencies, whose workforces now include 200,000 civilian employees and 600,000 private contractors, costing the taxpayers more than $100 billion a year.
It’s a large and mostly worthy target, one that will generate savings of about $25 billion each year. Back in 2014 the Pentagon commissioned a study which found roughly equivalent savings from similar places. Then it sat on the report, effectively burying it.
Now Congress’ most prominent defense budget booster actually wants to follow through on this effort to tame a major area of wasteful Pentagon inefficiency. His approach has at least two big problems, though.
The first is that, rather than returning the savings to the taxpayers, he means to plow those savings back into the Pentagon budget.
Why? The new huge military budget increase he championed, combined with the massive Trump tax cuts for the wealthy, will add a shocking — and potentially debilitating — $7 trillion to the deficit. (Meanwhile priorities like repairing the nation’s infrastructure, or preventing catastrophic climate change by converting to clean energy and transportation, go begging.)
The other problem is that one of his targets for elimination is the Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA). This is the agency that manages the process of closing bases and turning them over to communities, civilian agencies, and private interests for redevelopment. If he shuts that office down, Thornberry will actually be preserving waste that the military is eager to discard.
For decades, the base closure process has worked well to reduce the military’s excess capacity and give back the land and facilities the military doesn’t need to local communities. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, or BRAC, has kept the decisions largely focused on national security priorities and separated from parochial political disputes.
The process prescribes an orderly sequence of events involving a broad-based set of community stakeholders coming up with a redevelopment plan. The Office of Economic Adjustment is there to facilitate the process, offer technical assistance, and help find other government resources to enable the plan to succeed.
But the last BRAC Congress allowed to go forward occurred in 2005 — well over a decade ago.
For each of the last six years, the Pentagon has asked for another BRAC, citing an over 20 percent excess capacity — that is, property it's paying for that it doesn’t need. Each year, Congress has refused. The “bird in the hand” theory has prevailed, leading members of Congress and many of their constituents to favor the economic activity they know, derived from the Pentagon, over the challenges of replacing it.
Yet studies by the Office of Economic Adjustment and others have repeatedly found that most communities whose bases have closed have replaced nearly all civilian defense jobs. Many have done better than that.
Ten thousand jobs were wiped out, for example, when the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard closed in 1995. Today, with OEA’s help, it has more than replaced those jobs with a thriving mix of housing, retail, and light manufacturing, with a special focus on green businesses. And it is now in the running to become Amazon’s second hub.
Going after military waste, Rep. Thornberry wants to shut down the agency whose job it is to help the Pentagon get rid of expensive bases it doesn’t need or want. Tell me what sense this makes.
Miriam Pemberton is a federal budgeting expert and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.