Plenty of room for BRAC, says defense budget guru

Roughly one in five Defense Department installations have been deemed “excessive” by the department for more than ten years, and yet the Pentagon has knowingly footed the bill for the infrastructure due to sheer political resistance from Congress.

If the Pentagon truly wants to close additional facilities, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)’s Todd Harrison says DOD officials are going to have to present Congress with a plan so detailed and exact -- mapped right down to the congressional district -- that enough lawmakers will approve the measure.

“You can’t expect Congress to make tough choices,” Harrison said, briefing reporters one week before Pentagon budget officials are scheduled to announce President Obama’s fiscal 2014 defense spending request.

Last year, the Pentagon requested that Congress consider authorizing two Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) rounds, which administration officials argued were required in order for the Defense Department to meet the Budget Control Act mandate to cut $497 billion in spending over 10 years.

Democrats and Republicans quickly rejected the proposal, arguing that a BRAC round requires high up-front costs to dismantle facilities and therefore did not provide adequate immediate savings. Additionally, members argued the timing was poor because closing bases is bad for local economies. They also happen to be politically unpopular.

Before the 2005 BRAC round, the Defense Department’s own assessment determined that 24 percent of its facilities were “excess,” Harrison argued. By the end of the round, Congress and the Pentagon agreed to close what amounted to just 3 percent of DOD facilities.

“No business in America would be satisfied” operating at 20 percent excess, said Harrison. He argued DOD should foot the upfront costs in the coming request, which must come at the expense of other accounts, because BRAC savings are a long-term effort and the U.S. had to “get ahead of the curve.”

Last year, the Pentagon did not propose any specific bases for closure. Pentagon officials said they need congressional authorization to start that process officially.

But Harrison said with BRAC and other budget saving measures, the Pentagon needs to become its own lobbyist. DOD, he said, should target facilities for closure in congressional districts whose members of Congress and Senators will approve of them being cut. Get enough "yes" votes, he said, and Congress just might pass a BRAC round despite the inevitable objections of other members.

“DOD needs to come at Congress with more specific plans,” he said.  

Beyond BRAC, Harrison, who believes sequester will last through the end of the fiscal year on October 1, said that even cutting major weapons systems or entire F-35 variants simply will not be enough to keep costs below the current budget caps. He echoed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s call this week for major structural changes to the department, focusing on three areas: rebalancing military personnel and healthcare costs; trimming the civilian workforce permanently and ending furloughs; and a BRAC round.

“We need to challenge all past assumptions and we need to put everything on the table,” Hagel said, in his first major speech, before a roomful of military officers at Washington’s National Defense University on Wednesday. Hagel has ordered a “Strategic Choices and Management Review” that some analysts expect could radically shake up DOD’s organizational chart.

Military personnel and healthcare costs for the active duty force, he said, already account for 34 percent of the base DOD budget.  According to low growth estimates, by fiscal year 2021, the last year the Pentagon has planned for so far, the “milpers” costs will eat up 46 percent of the budget.

Whatever solution DOD prefers, Harrison repeatedly stressed the Pentagon must do better in persuading Congress to go along with it.

“I think they’ve got to be more serious about this.”

Harrison bluntly criticized the Pentagon for refusing to plan for the ”inevitable”: years of reduced spending levels that are closer to the current budget caps than to the proposals offered by Senate Democrats or House Republicans, which anticipate spending billions of more dollars.  

“They cant keep lagging behind, just responding from crisis to crisis.”

Marko Georgiev/Getty Images