For each of the past four years, the Pentagon has asked Congress to allow another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. Each year Congress has rejected the request. According to a report Monday at Politico’s Pro Defense site (subscription required), an unlikely Pentagon ally has emerged.
The report by Politico’s Bryan Bender states that the Association of Defense Communities — a membership organization of communities hosting military facilities — now fears the uncertainty surrounding the future of local military infrastructure more than another BRAC round. According to the report:
Surprisingly, much of the discussion at the annual meeting of the Association of Defense Communities was how the uncertainty surrounding many bases — some already have been hollowed out by cuts, and the Pentagon is considering ways to pare back more — means a new round of downsizing directed by Congress, however unpalatable, is the better, more open, and predictable approach.
An informal poll taken during the session showed that 92 percent of attendees, ranging from elected officials to defense contractors highly dependent on their nearby base, agreed that the status quo “would be worse for defense communities” than the much-feared BRAC process.
The BRAC process was, in large part, the brainchild of former Republican U.S. Rep. Dick Armey. In the 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed a large number of unneeded military facilities and privatized some of the country’s remaining public arsenals and shipyards. Members of Congress, fearing the loss of jobs in their home states and districts, subsequently created procedures so onerous that McNamara’s successors were effectively banned from further closures. In the 1980s Armey proposed a measure that became the BRAC process. Under the new system, an independent commission produces a list of bases from across the country that Congress must vote up or down on closing—thus preventing any one member from protecting an installation in his or her district. There have been five BRAC rounds thus far, in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005.
Congress rests its objection to a new BRAC on the high upfront costs and supposedly paltry savings of the 2005 round. However, new base construction and force mobilization for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accompanied the 2005 round—cutting into the savings achieved in previous rounds.
What members of Congress really fear is not that savings from a BRAC round will prove illusory, but that any jobs lost in their districts or states will diminish their chances of reelection.
Research on the economic effects of past base closures suggests that such fears are overblown. In a 2001 article in the journal Economic Inquiry, economists Mark Hooker and Michael Knetter found that base closures have minimal effect on a community’s per capita income. Using a dataset that included base closures from 1971 to 1994, Hooker and Knetter suggested that direct job losses were likely the result of military jobs leaving the area, rather than long-term damage to the local economy. That does not mean the effects of base closures are always benign, but a greater number of success stories show that closures allow a more productive use of resources.
The Department of Defense claims it has 20 percent excess infrastructure. Congress should grant the Pentagon’s request and begin the process of closing these bases. If the Association of Defense Communities is right, continued congressional stonewalling is far worse than the alternatives.