WASHINGTON – A political storm without a partisan tone is rare on Capitol Hill, but that's exactly what's shaping up in the fight over military base closings.
Ignoring a veto threat from President Bush, the House voted last Thursday to delay scheduled 2005 base closings round until 2007, while the Senate favors keeping the original timetable. Democrats and Republicans are lining up on both sides of the issue.
At a time of asymmetric and emerging threats as well as calls for the military to expand, eliminating military bases would be a grave error, say House lawmakers who favor the delay. They say they want to know how the military plans to operate in the future.
"Our military will have to do the same or more in the future on a smaller footprint, with a smaller industrial base and with fewer critical assets," warned Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., who supported the delay during the House debate.
But the Pentagon, the Senate and other House lawmakers say that delaying the base re-alignment and closure (search) (BRAC) schedule would hurt the War on Terror because it would set up a roadblock to plans to transform the military and save money as a result of running a leaner and meaner organization.
"Maintaining excess bases is very expensive. Closing unneeded bases produces long-term savings. It is a key component in the military transformation, and it reshapes the military to respond to new global missions," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.
The House passed the fiscal year 2005 defense authorization bill last Thursday with the delay in place until 2007. The Senate has indicated it would reject such a delay, but will not vote on the bill until after the Memorial Day recess.
Since 1988, the Department of Defense (search) has closed 97 major installations and realigned missions at 55 others. Prior BRAC actions have resulted in a savings of $7 billion a year, Raymond F. Dubois, deputy under secretary of defense for installations and environment, testified to Congress last year.
The bases to be closed have not been determined yet. Next May, the secretary of defense will submit base closure recommendations to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which will review and possibly amend the secretary’s recommendations before presenting a final list to the president by September 2005. If the president approves it, Congress will receive it by Sept. 23, 2005, with 45 days to disapprove the list. Otherwise, the Department of Defense begins base closings. The bases under consideration will not be made public until the Pentagon forwards its recommendations to the commission.
The Pentagon said that BRAC (search) must move forward to continue defense transformation, and base closures will actually aid the fight on terror, not detract from it.
"With everything else going on, it still does not mean we do not have excess capacity. If we can eliminate that, we will be able to save money as we did with the first four [rounds of] base closures," Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood told Foxnews.com. Flood said that the funds from closing these bases can be better used for improving quality of life for personnel, purchasing new equipment and other upgrades.
A March 2004 Pentagon report emphasized this assertion.
"Recent world events have not altered the need to transform the military infrastructure to meet future needs. In fact, these recent events have exacerbated the need to rapidly accomplish transformation and reshaping," reads the report, which estimates that the military's infrastructure is 24 percent larger than is needed.
The Pentagon acknowledges that base closures will be expensive in the short run, but officials say the cost is worth it because of the long-term savings. But with America in the midst of a War on Terror, some lawmakers say they are not so sure.
Bradley said that BRAC's estimated closing costs are $15 billion and these funds could be better used for immediate needs like armored Humvees. If the bases are closed right away, he said, the expected savings won't be realized until 2011.
A May 17 General Accounting Office (search) report found that the savings won't be achieved right away nor can their size be predicted. "While the potential exists for substantial savings from the upcoming round, it is difficult to conclusively project the expected magnitude of the savings because there are too many unknowns at this time."
Some lawmakers are also concerned that with military needs changing so rapidly, a major basing realignment may be a mistake.
"We think that having a BRAC in 2005 while we're at war and while a lot of basing strategies are incomplete" might be unwise, said Cathy Travis, spokeswoman for Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas. "Because the threat is evolving, Congress needs to know more about the infrastructure needs before beginning a BRAC."
But other lawmakers drew the opposite conclusion, and backed the Pentagon line that with a war on, it is important to keep BRAC on schedule.
"Delaying the transformation of our bases overseas and at home ties the hands of our military at the same time as we are fighting the War on Terror," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
On May 17, the Senate narrowly rejected, by 49 to 47, an effort to require the 2005 base realignment and closings to apply only to overseas bases, with any new domestic base closings being delayed until 2007. The strange bedfellows who sponsored the delay were Republicans Trent Lott of Mississippi and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democrats Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Dianne Feinstein of California.
The fight to delay base closings has also uncapped anger by some lawmakers who have long felt that the Pentagon fails to report often enough to Congress. Several senators and representatives were enraged after being surprised by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos, and they had harsh words for the Pentagon for failing to provide enough information on the BRAC process.
Some lawmakers said that conceding to the Pentagon's desire for BRAC to move forward without compelling the Defense Department to provide more information would be allowing their oversight powers to be usurped.
"Congress needs to know more about the infrastructure needs before beginning a BRAC," Travis said. "Congress is not just your hall monitor. We're in charge of this."
Sarah Shelden, spokeswoman for Joel Hefley, R-Colo., said her boss has a lot of questions and he has not received enough answers. She said it is better to slow down the process and get it right because "once you close these bases, generally you don’t get them back."
The House and Senate could go to conference committee on the defense authorization bill in June, with a lively debate on the future of the bases to be expected.