Congress won’t let Panetta close bases
by ROWAN SCARBOROUGH
June 21, 2012
Congress is poised to deliver a defeat to the Obama administration on one of its main defense policies in the new budget - base closings.
Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees have produced fiscal 2013 spending bills that deny Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's request to set up a Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) next year - the sixth since 1988.
Some in defense circles say it is the result of election-year politics and members of Congress will realize next year that they need to heed top Pentagon officials who have testified that they have too much infrastructure and not enough money.
"It is election-year posturing," said an aerospace executive who monitors BRAC.
Others are not so sure, saying base closings would put thousands of people out of work in a tepid job market.
"I do not think the appetite will go up postelection," said Steven P. Bucci, a Heritage Foundation military analyst who served as a senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration.
"Congress has never shown any appetite for any BRAC because they, Congress, are by design taken out of the process," he said.
"A BRAC commission does the research, makes the recommendations for closures, and then everyone has to basically ‘eat' the results. I sound harsh, but Congress sees the protection of jobs and installations in their districts and states to be their duty," Mr. Bucci said.
With BRAC, Congress stays mostly on the sidelines. It can lobby the commission, but the commission's closure list can be accepted or rejected only in full.
Cutting troops, not bases
The Republican-led House already has passed the no-BRAC bill crafted by its Armed Services Committee, and the Democrat-led Senate panel has approved unanimously its defense bill omitting base closures.
A conference committee to reconcile the bills will have no pro-BRAC members, thus delaying the base-closing process for at least a year.
Mr. Panetta has said he needs to close bases and small installations to help him achieve $487 billion in congressionally mandated spending cuts over the next 10 years.
The final defense spending bill not only will deny a new BRAC but also likely will include language that prohibits the military from taking unilateral action to close small facilities without prior White House notification to Congress.
A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment when asked what options remain, saying the legislative process is not complete.
To meet budget-cutting demands, Mr. Panetta is slashing Marine Corps and Army troops by 90,000, while the Navy and Air Force are trimming manpower on a smaller scale.
The Air Force has provided a snapshot of how to reduce operating costs without necessarily shuttering buildings. It announced in March a series of unit deactivations, such as a 600-troop communications unit known as the Third Herd at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
The Air Force is targeting big and small, even reaching down to deactivate bands, such as the Band of Liberty at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
The overall plan is to reduce manpower by 3,900 active airmen, 5,100 Air National Guardsmen and 900 reservists.
Some defense sources say the Air Force has an excess of training centers and bases for bombers and cargo planes.