In 1991, a Democratic Congressman from California fought hard to keep an Army base open in his congressional district. While he lost that fight and Fort Ord was forced to close, the lawmaker’s political career did not end there.
Leon Panetta went on to become director of the Office of Management and Budget and chief of staff to President Clinton, during which time two more base realignment and closure (BRAC) rounds took place.
In 2005, during what some people call “the mother of all BRACs,” Panetta served as co-chairman of the California Council on Base Support and Retention, where he fought to keep the Defense Language Institute and the Naval Postgraduate School open, both located in his hometown of Monterey, Calif.
Over the course of his career, Panetta has both fought against BRAC and made the case for it.
Now, as Defense Department secretary, he has said that as part of the 2013 budget,the Pentagon will ask Congress for legislation to establish a new BRAC commission to oversee up to two rounds of domestic base closures.
Panetta’s January announcement was met with immediate resistance from Congress,with influential members saying the proposal was dead on arrival as far as they were concerned.
However, Panetta’s experience, especially his understanding of the community-level concerns, could help the Defense Department gain congressional support for further base closures, according to past BRAC officials.
“He has been on all sides of this issue,” said David Berteau, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “I think therefore he has some unique standing, and if he chooses to put that standing into play, I think it could go a long way toward getting the authorization for a round.”
Berteau served as a senior BRAC official during the 1990s base closures.
After Fort Ord closed, then-Rep. Panetta urged his community back home to move on from the painful decision and start thinking about how the military base could be reused. Part of the old base is now home to a campus of California State University, which includes the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, as well as conservation land and commercial buildings.
Panetta’s unique background allows him to weigh in with members of Congress on a personal level, Berteau said. “If he’s personally willing to make the case, it will put a lot of credibility behind the request.”
That level of authority could come in handy, especially during an election year.
“Don’t ever forget: BRAC is the third rail of defense politics,” an issue so charged and controversial no one wants to touch it, said Ray DuBois, former acting undersecretary of the Army and now a senior adviser at CSIS. From 2001 to 2004, DuBois served as the deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, overseeing BRAC during that time.
The fact that President Obama is making a BRAC request during an election year shows just how serious the administration is about getting it done, Berteau said.
Resistance is already fierce.
When asked what he would do to a Pentagon request for domestic base closures, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said: “Kill it.”
Such a request would be dead on arrival, at least in the House, McKeon told an audience Feb. 1 at a Reserve Officers Association conference.
McKeon was not alone in his opposition. Several Congressmen and senators issued press releases vowing to protect military bases and installations in their districts.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., questioned whether BRAC rounds ever result in savings.
“Before we have another BRAC round, I think we need to do a cost-benefit analysis of whether we’re really going to save any money,” she said during a Feb. 2 briefing on Capitol Hill.
Defense analysts agree that while closing bases costs money upfront, it produces savings in the long run.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the 2005 BRAC round, which was mostly completed last fall, will start paying for itself in 2018, a date that has slipped due to unforeseen costs.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, indicated he was open to discussing a BRAC request. “I think everything would be on the table,” he said. “We’re willing to negotiate on something like that.”
Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, has said he supports base closures.
“I think without question we’re going to have to do base realignment,” he said in an interview. “I don’t see how any person looking at the strategy and looking at the changes coming down could conclude otherwise.”
If history is a guide, the most likely scenario is that Congress will ask for reports on the effectiveness of BRAC in its 2013 policy bill and then wait until 2014 to include language that would authorize a new BRAC commission, Berteau said. “The track record says that you’ve got to request it, knowing you might not get it this year.”
On that schedule, a new BRAC round would not begin until 2015, the same year the 2005 BRAC Commission recommended a new round of base closures.
DoD leadership would be needed to make the case on Capitol Hill as well as within the Pentagon, where the individual military services will likely push back on reductions to infrastructure.
“It takes a strong Defense secretary and strong [Office of the Secretary of Defense] leadership to demonstrate there are cost-savings and infrastructure reductions that can be achieved,” DuBois said. “If you were to leave it up to the services, you would not achieve very much.”
The military services have the tendency to evaluate base closures from their perspective alone, Berteau said. “To see the true potential for BRAC, you need to look at it DoD-wide.”
Following Panetta’s announcement that the Pentagon would be requesting new base closures, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said a new round of BRAC might mean minor changes for the Army, but nothing like the 2005 round.
“The Army went through a very significant BRAC here not too long ago,” he said during a press briefing. “For the Army, I believe, a follow-on BRAC would not have as much impact on the Army, because we’ve pretty much done what we want to. We have to do some minor things, I think, as we go through BRAC, but, I think for the most part, we’ve established our installations.”
The Navy and the Air Force also say they’ve been aggressive in previous BRAC rounds.
The Army had 12 major closures in the 2005 BRAC round, while the Navy had five. The Air Force was also slated for five major closures; but Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., was eventually taken off the list.
While the Marine Corps has far less infrastructure than the other services, it probably has excess capacity, especially as it had zero major closures in the last round, DuBois said.
Berteau said it is premature to say how a BRAC may affect any of the services.
Two keys things haven’t been determined yet, he said. “To get the most out of a U.S. base closure, you’ve got to know what your endpoint is — your force structure, but also your support structure for those combat troops.”
Today’s plans call for the Army’s active-duty force to be reduced from 547,000 soldiers to 490,000, a move tied to the Pentagon’s $487 billion cut, which was mandated by the initial spending caps included in the Budget Control Act of 2011.
However, it is far from certain whether defense will be cut further, Berteau said. “Even if it rests at $487 billion, you still have a good case to make for base closures, but the real case to be made is that it’s probably not the last reduction.”
As the Pentagon considers closing stateside facilities, it will have to look at its depots and laboratories, too, which raises the question: What kind of capability needs to be maintained inside DoD and to what extent does the government feel comfortable relying on the private sector?
“Those questions are much bigger than base closures, but would clearly create an opportunity within base closures,” Berteau said. In the end, “the No. 1 measure of whether you close or realign a base, or not, is the military value, not the budgetary savings. That’s a very powerful dynamic I think the department wants to preserve.”