Congress Hates Military-Base Closings, but Can Chuck Hagel Do It Without Their Approval?

The Defense secretary says he is studying his options.

The entrance to Camp Justice at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
National Journal
March 5, 2014, 12:12 p.m.

The Pentagon’s budget sets up an up­hill battle with Con­gress by re­quest­ing fur­ther do­mest­ic base clos­ures and re­align­ment, but the De­fense De­part­ment’s top of­fi­cial could try to give mem­bers the slip.

As part of the de­part­ment’s 2015 fisc­al-year budget re­quest, the Pentagon wants a round of base clos­ures and re­align­ment — known as BRAC — for U.S. bases in 2017.

“We think BRAC is a smart po­s­i­tion to have, as you know we have called for it again, we’re go­ing to con­tin­ue work through all this,” De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel said at an Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day. “I’ve got some op­tions as sec­ret­ary of De­fense in law “¦ through a sec­tion of Art­icle 10.”

The sec­ret­ary didn’t spe­cify what op­tions he could have in re­gard to re­du­cing over­head, but a House staffer sug­ges­ted last month that un­der a pro­vi­sion of fed­er­al law deal­ing with the De­fense De­part­ment, Hagel could close bases and only have to no­ti­fy Con­gress be­fore­hand — rather than ask its per­mis­sion.

If the sec­ret­ary wants to close a base with at least 300 ci­vil­ian em­ploy­ees or cut more than 1,000, or more than 50 per­cent, of ci­vil­ian jobs at a base, he must no­ti­fy the Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tees as part of the de­part­ment’s an­nu­al budget re­quest, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al law.

That no­ti­fic­a­tion must in­clude an “eval­u­ation of the fisc­al, loc­al eco­nom­ic, budget­ary, en­vir­on­ment­al, stra­tegic, and op­er­a­tion­al con­sequences of such clos­ure or re­align­ment.”

What Con­gress could do to stop Hagel is un­clear, but Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has pressed Pentagon of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing Bob Work, the pres­id­ent’s deputy De­fense sec­ret­ary nom­in­ee — to cla­ri­fy where any leg­al au­thor­ity the Pentagon could have comes from.

“I be­lieve that Con­gress should be in the po­s­i­tion to ap­prove BRAC, and there should not be a run­around done,” Ayotte said last week.

As Pentagon of­fi­cials have ac­know­ledged, mem­bers are loath to close bases that could cost jobs back in their home states and would cost money up front be­fore sav­ings kick in. Deputy De­fense Sec­ret­ary Christine Fox said be­fore the budget was re­leased that De­fense of­fi­cials were hear­ing that their base-clos­ure re­quest would be “dead on ar­rival.”

Rising costs from a 2005 re­com­mend­a­tion for a round of base clos­ure and re­align­ment left some mem­bers of Con­gress hes­it­ant to try again. A com­mis­sion ori­gin­ally es­tim­ated that it would cost the Pentagon $21 bil­lion to fol­low its re­com­mend­a­tions, but, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 GAO re­port, the cost ended up around $35.1 bil­lion.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., touched on that dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing, adding that she “cer­tainly strongly dis­agrees with an­oth­er BRAC round at this time.”

But the De­fense De­part­ment is plan­ning to fol­low forth­com­ing re­com­mend­a­tions to close or re­align bases across Europe, which aren’t sub­ject to con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al. The Pentagon has re­duced its in­fra­struc­ture in Europe by 30 per­cent since 2000.

But Shaheen sug­ges­ted that mem­bers of Con­gress do need to know what re­com­mend­a­tions are be­ing made about base clos­ures in Europe, and throughout the world, be­fore they can con­sider re­quests to close or re­align bases in their own back­yards.

And Rep. Mi­chael Turn­er, R-Ohio, sug­ges­ted dur­ing his ques­tion­ing at a House Armed Ser­vices sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day that the European bases are cent­ral to the mil­it­ary’s over­all mis­sion.

Gen­er­al Dav­id Rodrig­uez, head of the U.S. Africa Com­mand, agreed, say­ing the bases are “crit­ic­al for our mis­sion in Africa.”

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