It’s time to look tough on the deficit and tough on defense.


With the mid-term elections behind us, but Halloween in fresh memory, it’s time to ask again about BRAC—the Base Closure and Realignment process (boo!). The Army Department clearly wants another round to balance its books. For years, think-tankers and defense officials have held a wide consensus that further closures would be economically important to the Defesen Department as a whole. That effect, of course, is not so widely presumed to apply to the communities surrounding the bases. Back in March, Andy Medici of Military Times asked five congressman and senators if they’d support a 2017 BRAC. Three were from Maryland, one from Virginia, and one from Montana. No points for guessing which one said yes.

But as I wrote a year ago, it’s not generally realized how shutting down bases can free up resources locally, and how this often turns out positively for the community. In his book Shutting Down the Cold War: the Politics of Military Base Closure (Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), David Sorenson of the Air War College found that, on average, the closures of the 1980s and 1990s “actually helped local economies,” (p. 76). Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute has come to similar conclusions for the whole set of rounds in his ongoing project on “Creative Destruction: What Happens When the Military Leaves”.
BRAC is a rather technocratic process. In their 2011 study in the Journal of Economic Policy Reform, Scott Beaulier, Joshua Hall, and Allen Lynch could find no evidence, despite all the lobbying, of systematic political influence on the outcomes in any of the preceding BRAC rounds. (See “The Impact of Political Factors on Military Base Closures,” vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 333-342). They admit that the Clinton Administration’s decisions in the midst of the 1995 round to privatize the Air Force depots in Sacramento and San Antonio rather side-stepped the process, but these were alient exceptions for large facilities. Otherwise, the BRAC has functioned almost entirely as it was intended, even if a few have lamented this remarkable delegation of congressional power.
The unelected, independent commission may have been a legacy of the Progressive Era, and its semi-artifical separation of policy and administration, but the evidence shows that it has worked. Playing the BRAC game politically has had little political upside, so political objections within the process have mostly served to look ‘tough on base closure’. But here’s the pitch to that historic GOP majority in Congress: there’s little political downside as well. Sorenson also found that for the BRACs of 1991, 1993, and 1995, “there is no evidence that base closure was responsible for even a single congressional or senatorial defeat in the election years following each round” (p. 213).
The alternative is to sit back and the let the Pentagon do this by stealth. Both outgoing Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and freshly-reelected Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire have expressed concern that the Army in particular may try to secure approval for specific base closures in a forthcoming ordinary budget request. After all, as Congressional staffer Vicki Plunkett reminded a meeting of the Association of the US Army back in February, Title 10 Section 2687 of the US Code “does give the services authority to do closures, and it only requires notification to Congress.” Back then, Congressman Adam Smith of the House Armed Services Committee got the message, warning his colleagues to act, or “it may be necessary for the department to explore the possibility of realigning its bases under existing authorities.” Barry Rhoads, a BRAC consultant who served as the deputy general counsel to the 1991 Commission, wrote in Defense News is April that the process was already underway.
Even so, opposition may spring from not just local politics or administrative process, but financial performance. Levin of Michigan—and notably, of the Armed Services Committee—has held no interest in another BRAC; when interviewed about the issue in March, he specifically cited the poor performance of the 2005 round. The problem with counting dollars from that round—which saved less money, and slower, than had been forecast—was that the intent of the BRAC process was swung away from closure and strongly towards realignment. Defense Secretary and former pharmaceuticals CEO Donald Rumsfeld had very particular notions of how we wanted to change the business of the department, and to support that, he wanted to change where that business was done. The shuffle of functions in the 2000s thus featured a throwback to 1990s-era business process reengineering. In the long run, swapping functions amongst facilities might improve military performance. In the short run, it just costs money.
If that left a bad aftertaste, there’s a clear way to have it better in another round. When the legislature acts, the legislature gets to set the ground rules, specifying the decision criteria for closures and realignments. In authorizing a BRAC for 2017, this Congress could make cost reduction the clear objective function, within the soft constraint of maintaining military capability. A 2017 BRAC Commission would cleve to that instruction, as past commissions largely have. The legislation would be simple to write, and the blowback easily weathered. By launching that process, the Congress could get tough on the deficit, tough on defense, and even a little functional.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.