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House Bill Lays Foundation for Future Base Closings

The House Armed Services Committee is opening the door ever so slightly to the possibility of another Base Closure and Realignment Commission, laying the preliminary groundwork in its version of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill for the Pentagon to begin the lengthy and painful process of shuttering unneeded installations.

The panel’s bill (HR 4435), which the committee will consider during a marathon markup on Wednesday, denies the Pentagon’s request to begin a so-called BRAC round in 2015. But a little-noticed provision should give defense officials some hope that House lawmakers, who typically are the hardest to sell on base closures, are at least coming around to the idea of another BRAC.

In its portion of the bill, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness inserted a provision that would require the Defense secretary to submit a 20-year force structure plan and a comprehensive inventory of the department’s worldwide infrastructure when it delivers its fiscal 2016 budget request to Capitol Hill early next year.

Along with the report, the secretary would be required to certify that another BRAC is needed and would result in annual net savings within six years after the base-closure round is initiated. The bill also would task the Government Accountability Office with evaluating the “accuracy and analytical sufficiency of the plan and inventory.”

A House aide tracking the issue said lawmakers would simply feel more comfortable considering another base-closure round if they had more detailed information from the department.

“I think there is recognition that, at some point, we are going to deal with this information more seriously than we probably have,” the aide said.

The provision, though an incremental move, marks an evolution in thinking among lawmakers who have flatly and repeatedly rejected any talk of another base-closure round despite assertions from the Pentagon that the military has 25 percent more infrastructure than it actually needs.

Another BRAC round, defense officials say, would cost $6 billion up front. But it would cut costs by $2 billion a year in perpetuity, a tantalizing savings for a department faced with long-term caps on its budgets. Those caps are squeezing spending across the department, forcing the Pentagon to rethink how and where it spends its more limited money.

David Berteau, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, likens Congress’s reluctance on base closures to its unwillingness to accept Pentagon proposals to trim military benefits and make other difficult cost-cutting decisions.

But it appears that lawmakers are beginning to recognize that the department’s cash flow problem is not going away.

“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.

Even if the final defense authorization bill includes only the House Armed Services Committee’s language, defense policy experts both on and off Capitol Hill see it as significant progress for a department that has failed to sell a reticent Congress on base closures.

Frank Oliveri contributed to this report.