Last month, Congress authorized a massive increase in defense spending as part of a two-year budget deal. In 2018 alone, the Pentagon will receive an additional $80 billion, increasing the topline number to $629 billion. War spending will push the total over $700 billion. Though such a windfall might prompt Defense Department to ignore cost-saving measures, the White House pledged that “DOD will also pursue an aggressive reform agenda to achieve savings that it will reinvest in higher priority needs.” Noticeably absent, however, was another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), even though Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and at least four of his predecessors, have called for such authority in order to reduce the military’s excess overhead, most recently estimated at 19 percent.
Congress’ unwillingness to authorize a round of base closures should surprise no one. But congressional inaction doesn’t merely undermine military efficiency. In the most recent Strategic Studies Quarterly, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and I explain how the status quo is actually hurting military communities.
To be sure, closing a military base can be disruptive to surrounding economies, and for some communities it may be economically devastating. But such cases are the exception, not the rule. Evidence shows that most communities recover, and some do so quite rapidly. A 2005 study by the Pentagon Office of Economic Adjustment researched over 70 communities affected by a base closure and determined that nearly all civilian defense jobs lost were eventually replaced.8 The new jobs are in a variety of industries and fields, allowing communities to diversify their economies away from excessive reliance on the federal government.
Rep. Smith and I are not alone in our assessment of the impact that congressional inaction on BRAC has on local communities and our military. In June of last year, over 45 experts from various think tanks of differing ideological and political bents signed onto an open letter urging Congress to authorize a BRAC round.
In a 2016 letter to congressional leaders, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work explained that “local communities will experience economic impacts regardless of a congressional decision regarding BRAC authorization. This has the harmful and unintended consequence of forcing the Military Departments to consider cuts at all installations, without regard to military value. . . . Without BRAC, local communities’ ability to plan and adapt to these changes is less robust and offers fewer protections than under BRAC law.”
Further, an overwhelming majority of the communities represented by the Association of Defense Communities would prefer a BRAC to the current alternative. This should not come as a shock because, as Smith and I note, “Local communities have been deprived of the support BRAC would provide and have been denied access to property that could be put to productive use.”
Just to recap, nearly everyone—from think tank experts to DOD officials and from presidents to local community leaders—want a BRAC. Alas, a few key members of Congress stand in opposition.
BRAC has proven to be a fair and efficient process for making the difficult but necessary decisions related to reconfiguring our military infrastructure and defense communities. Rather than continuing to block base closures for parochial reasons, Congress should permit our military the authority to eliminate waste while providing vital defense resources where they are most needed, and give communities the clarity and financial support they need to convert former military bases to new purposes.
If you would like to hear more, Rep. Smith and I will be discussing the issue at the Cato Institute on March 14 at 9 am. Click here for more information and to register.