For Congress, common ground on wrong front

Walter Pincus / The Washington Post /

Published Mar 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — There is bipartisanship in Congress!

House Republicans and Democrats agree they are not going to let the Obama White House cut defense spending by permitting any more reduction in excess military facilities.

Fact: Nine years ago, the Air Force found more than 20 percent of its infrastructure was excess. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) made a cut of less than 1 percent. Since then, Air Force personnel have been cut by about 48,000 and the number of aircraft has dropped by 500. That’s similar to 10 bases, says one defense expert.

The Air Force needs to save more money, so it is seeking a new BRAC.

But Congress must approve it.

Fact: Some Army facilities built during World War II for 8 million soldiers remain standing. At one, there are 800 buildings; 300 are in use.

Last year, Congress prohibited the Obama administration’s request in the fiscal 2013 budget to start a BRAC process — the politically complex means by which the Defense Department, the public and Congress determine where closures occur.

In 2004, the Bush White House started a BRAC process based on a Pentagon survey that said the services had 24 percent in excess infrastructure. The 2005 BRAC process shrank that by 6 percent, tops.

However, the initial BRAC investment costs $35 billion, almost double the original estimates. BRAC will still save billions, but recovering the cost of executing the plan will be delayed. There are $4 billion in savings a year.

The Obama 2014 budget is to be released in early April, and a BRAC red alert has hit Congress.

On Thursday, the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness showed its members were ready to defend installations in their districts against any BRAC effort.

Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., the panel’s chairman, opened a hearing asking: “Where is the excess infrastructure? I’ve yet to see any empirical evidence that would provide even the slightest degree of support for another round of BRAC.”

Wittman, whose district includes Hampton Roads — home to major Navy facilities along with nearby Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard installations — added: “BRAC 2005 was an absolute failure. . . . The GAO (Government Accountability Office) determined that the BRAC 2005 payback would not occur for over 13 years.”

John Conger, acting deputy defense undersecretary for installations and environment, tried to offer context. He agreed the initial BRAC costs were “larger than anticipated, but it is done now. We are doing nothing but saving from this point on.”

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., asked Conger for a list of excess capacity since “in your testimony, you seem to believe very adamantly that there’s excess capacity.”

When Conger responded that authority to conduct a BRAC survey was needed before the Defense Department could produce such a list, Scott asked “How can you be so convinced that there’s excess capacity if you don’t know where it is?”

Conger’s answer was that the 2004 survey found 24 percent excess capacity and BRAC cut much less. Meanwhile, there have been personnel cuts in military and civilian staffing, with more on the way.

Scott’s district is home to Robins Air Force Base and the Air Force Materiel Command logistics complex, which services aircraft.

On Friday, the Air Force at Robins announced it was offering 403 civilian workers payments of up to $25,000 for regular or early retirement or resignation because the workload had decreased.

Rep. David Loebsack, D-Iowa, focused on the defense industrial base and asked what strategy the Army would use to determine the “size and whether the organic industrial base footprint does need to be reduced.”

Loebsack’s district is adjacent to the Rock Island Arsenal, one of the Army’s largest weapons-producing and repairing facilities. He is co-chairman of the House Military Depot and Industrial Facilities Caucus. Last year, the arsenal cut 300 workers.

Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, told Loebsack at the hearing that “technology enabled us to have increased production in a smaller footprint,” but he questioned whether a smaller industrial base would be ready “in the event of another contingency or series of contingencies down the road.”

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., has Ellsworth Air Force Base in her district. She asked Conger whether funds for a BRAC would be diverted from other Pentagon activities and suggested the least disruption to national readiness was to “first focus on support systems such as military schools . . . rather than going after — seeking to close bases that house bombers or fighter wings.”

Wittman ended the session as he began it.

“I haven’t heard anything today that indicates that there is a rational basis to pursue a BRAC, nor are there dollars available during these very austere times by which to pursue a BRAC,” he said. “And with that I want you to know that I am adamantly opposed to the pursuit of a BRAC at this particular time.”

He turned for a closing remark from the panel’s ranking Democrat, Del. Madeleine Bordallo, Guam, who has Navy installations in her district. “I guess I will have to concur with your thoughts,” she said.

That’s bipartisanship, but is it in the public interest?

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