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House Bill Lays Foundation for Future Base Closings

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Smith, left, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, plans to present an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that would initiate another BRAC round.

“I think it [the House provision] indicates that the vise that is squeezing DoD is being taken more seriously,” said Berteau, a former senior Defense Department official and veteran of the BRAC rounds of the 1990s.

Still, the vast majority of lawmakers don’t want to risk political backlash from losing valuable military jobs in their districts and states by green lighting another painful round of base closings. Lawmakers point to the slow savings — and the hefty upfront costs — generated by the last round in 2005 as reason enough to shelve the idea the idea of base closures for now.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly insisted that the next BRAC round would generate savings much more rapidly than the 2005 round, which was undertaken in the middle of two wars and long before the Defense Department’s most recent money problems.

Their arguments have won over at least one key lawmaker, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Smith plans to offer an amendment, likely when the authorization bill reaches the House floor, that would begin another BRAC round but set new stipulations to ensure that the decisions are focused on cutting the department’s costs. Smith’s amendment also would strengthen the independent commission and improve transparency in the BRAC process.

Smith recently acknowledged his language would “get crushed” during the committee’s markup. It likely will be soundly defeated on the House floor as well, but offering a floor amendment would at least provide a more high-profile forum for debate and put lawmakers on the record.

After that, the debate over the issue will turn to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which considers its version of the sprawling Pentagon policy measure later this month.

Historically, BRAC rounds have been approved first in the Senate and then included in the final conference report on the authorization bill. But key committee members — including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat whose subcommittee has oversight of BRAC — have staked out positions in opposition to the Pentagon’s request.

“I’m disappointed that the department has again requested a base realignment and closure round in 2017,” Shaheen said during a hearing last month. “I don’t believe that the department has yet adequately explained how the significant cost growth we saw in the 2005 BRAC round would be avoided this time around or made sufficient progress in reducing the infrastructure overseas particularly in Europe.”

Shaheen, who is expected to face off against former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown in November, is a prime example of a lawmaker with a lot to lose in another BRAC round.

The Pentagon put the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine on its 2005 list of closures, prompting the Maine and New Hampshire delegations to wage a monthslong campaign to save the shipyard.

They ultimately won and Portsmouth stayed open. But Shaheen and others in the region continue to guard fiercely against another BRAC, particularly as they campaign for re-election.

Congressional authorization of another BRAC before the midterm elections is, at best, unlikely. The best-case scenario for the Defense Department would be for the Senate to agree to authorize a BRAC during floor debate on the defense bill, which could come up during the lame duck session.

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