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Some Say Keeping Walter Reed Operational Risks Reopening BRAC

With lawmakers now floating the idea of keeping open the Army’s scandal-plagued Walter Reed Medical Center in order to care for injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, some worry that doing so would set a bad precedent — effectively overturning a settled decision from the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process and giving dozens of lawmakers a chance to argue why facilities in their district or state should also remain open.

“To undo [base closing decisions] and put it back together is an enormously complex undertaking, and one that would probably not go very smoothly, because everyone is going to want undo their base,” Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, told CongressNow yesterday. “But, I do think we have a responsibility to talk about it,” he added.

A Washington lobbyist, who has represented several communities with military bases, said that keeping Walter Reed operational “opens the Pandora’s box. If you start opening the barn door, the animals will run out.”

Under a contentious 2005 Base Realignment and Closure plan, Congress approved closing 33 major U.S. military bases and realigning 29 other installations. The Pentagon has said that this plan will cut excess military infrastructure by between 5 percent and 11 percent, saving $48.8 billion over 20 years.

Walter Reed was marked for closure under the 2005 plan, although most of the hospital’s medical operations will be moved up the road a few miles to newly constructed facilities at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

However, recent news reports about poor conditions and treatment for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed have prompted some lawmakers to suggest that the facility not close by 2011 and instead receive an immediate infusion of funds to upgrade conditions for injured soldiers.

“One of the options on the table” is keeping Walter Reed open, to ensure that injured soldiers receive improved health care, said a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the Armed Services Committee’s ranking member.

Lawmakers and Congressional aides said that removing a base from the BRAC list would likely require legislation and may be tough to accomplish without restarting the base closing process.

Under BRAC rules, the Pentagon makes recommendations for base closing to an independent commission that then hears testimony and makes final recommendations that must be approved or rejected by Congress as a package in an up-or-down vote.

“We’re Congress, and we did it,” McHugh said. “Technically, legally, we can undo it, but it would be enormously challenging and complex — certainly totally unprecedented — and would be very contested.”

A House staffer said that BRAC law does not allow for reconsideration of a decision to close just one base. Instead, the entire process would have to be restarted if closing were reversed, the aide said.

A Senate leadership aide added that it’s unlikely that multiple closure or realignment decisions would be revisited. “I don’t know how that would get done,” the aide said. “It would require Congress rewriting the BRAC process altogether.”

The Pentagon is in no hurry to open up the 2005 BRAC decisions, a spokesman said, but will take the lead from Congress.

“We stand by the BRAC process — it is a good, and thorough one,” said the Pentagon spokesman. “But ultimately, our job is to do what our elected officials tell us to do.”

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