As Republicans work to pound out a 2018 budget, one area of contention within the Republican majority has been over exactly how large the Defense budget should be. With the House Armed Services Committee proposing to set it at $696 billion and the Senate Armed Services Committee calling for $700 billion, negotiations will continue until a specific price tag is set. What seems certain is that spending will be up dramatically from the $618.7 billion Defense budget in 2017.
These proposals align well with President Trump’s campaign pledges to increase military spending to rebuild the military and finance a renewed effort to combat global terrorism. However, amidst the Republican frenzy to produce a budget vastly ramping up military expenditures, few lawmakers are asking if the money already allocated is being spent as efficiently as it could be. Indeed, Congress may once again pass up an opportunity to work towards eliminating waste within the military by closing excess military bases.
According to a report issued by the Defense Department in March of 2016, 22 percent of the military’s domestic bases will be considered excess by 2019. This means that given the Defense Department’s projections for how large the military will be in 2019, a conservative estimate would say that all its projected needs could be met without approximately 22 percent of the infrastructure that it currently has. Aware of this growth in redundancy, the Defense Department has repeatedly petitioned Congress over the last several years to initiate a new round of base closures by appropriating funds for the creation of a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission. This independent, bipartisan commission works with the Defense Department to identify and choose military bases to close or realign, then presents Congress with a comprehensive plan that lawmakers must either accept or reject in its entirety without changes.
The BRAC process was designed to depoliticize military base closures and reduce the political incentives for lawmakers to resist closing bases. Yet recent efforts by the DoD to initiate a new round of BRAC have none the less been resisted in Congress due to lawmaker’s concerns over the negative effect of potential closures in their districts.
Early in the year, there were some tentative signs that this resistance could be ebbing in response to the Trump administration’s request for another round of BRAC within its budget proposal. In January, Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that both he and the ranking Democratic member of the Committee, Jack Reed, were “seriously considering” the possibility of initiating a new round of base closures to reduce waste. That same month, Representative Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation to authorize the Pentagon to carry out additional rounds of base closures.
Unfortunately, support for a new round of BRAC has remained low among most lawmakers. Many Republicans dispute the Pentagon’s report detailing the severity of excess capacity, as they claim the military’s size should be larger than what was estimated in the report. There is also little enthusiasm across the aisle, with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire stating that after consulting her Senate colleagues, she “hadn’t heard an inclination to go forward [with BRAC] in this budget year.”
This reluctance to shut down unnecessary bases is counter to the best interests of both the military and taxpayers. By maintaining excess capacity, the military wastes money that could be used elsewhere, or better yet returned to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts, on land and facilities it doesn’t need. The Defense Department estimates that another round of BRAC could save around $2 billion annually on top of the approximately $12 billion saved annually from the previous five rounds of BRAC. This represents billions of dollars that the government now has to reinvest in military or civil programs or to offset the tax burden on citizens, which otherwise would’ve been flitted away on unnecessary bases.
Frequently politicians oppose BRAC out of concern over political blowback given the potentially negative economic effects facing their constituents should a base in their district be marked for closure. Yet politicians’ inaction could be more detrimental to the very communities they want to protect. In an open letter sent to Congress by a bipartisan group of 45 think-tank scholars and academics, the authors argued that refusing to close bases through BRAC is more damaging than alternatives to the communities where bases are located.
While acknowledging the immediate economic dislocations caused by base closures, the authors pointed to a 2005 study by the Office of Economic Adjustment, which analyzed the economic effects on over 70 communities affected by previous rounds of BRAC. The study found that most civilian defense jobs lost as a result of BRAC were replaced and that according to unemployment and per capita income growth statistics, “most communities are doing well compared with average U.S. rates.” The open letter went on to observe that these new jobs “are in a variety of industries and fields, allowing communities to diversify their economies away from their excessive reliance on the federal government.”
Additionally, the open letter observed that communities are not protected economically from a lack of BRAC. According to a letter by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work from April 12 of last year, communities surrounding bases “will experience economic impacts regardless of congressional decision regarding BRAC,” which in turn will force “the Military Departments to consider cuts at all installations without regard to military value.” Work further argued, “without BRAC, local communities’ ability to plan and adapt to these changes is less robust and offers fewer protections than under BRAC law.”
Republicans concerned over BRAC impeding what they believe to be a necessary expansion of the military, should reconsider their objections. As the recent bipartisan open letter to Congress on BRAC noted, the DoD’s projections on excess base capacity were “not based on an expectation of a much smaller [military],” and even if the military was to grow to the size president Trump has called for, “the Pentagon will still be saddled with considerably more overhead than it needs well into the 2020s.” Beyond this, BRAC rounds tend only to seek reductions in excess capacity by around five percent, leaving the military with extra capacity to adjust to any changes in its mission requirements.
Given the growing body of evidence countering the traditional objections to base closures, this particular issue should have bipartisan support. The bottom line is that a new round of BRAC will streamline the military, reduce governmental waste, and help transition local communities affected by base closures towards diverse, more viable economies in the longer term. In a time of rising political partisanship, military base closures should be an area where Democrats and Republicans can work together to achieve a common goal that is beneficial to the entire country.
Jack Hipkins graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2016. He researches U.S. grand strategy and the interconnection between U.S. foreign policy and trends in global conflict.