A Diet for the Pentagon: Trimming the Fat with BRAC
August 27, 2017
A BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) is a “congressionally authorized process” influenced by the Department of Defense (DOD) that involves the closure of some military base installations and realignment into other existing bases, in order to consolidate resources and energy spent.  When the military is functioning with more than 20% excess capacity (as is foreseen by 2019), efforts such as promoting a BRAC round can cut down on that excess. 
Although this seems economically sound, having a successful BRAC round entails many years of advanced planning and faces both political and economic barriers. Not only does it take a bit of funding for a BRAC to occur, but sometimes the savings aren’t as apparent as the government and public would like. Furthermore, given the impact a base closure may have on local businesses, BRAC rounds face a large political roadblock. These dilemmas have led to increasing difficulties in funding a BRAC through Congress, let alone carrying out a successful BRAC overtime.
Congress and the Pentagon have undergone many initiatives to trim down the military’s excess capacity since WWII. Congressional committees such as the Armed Services, Governmental Affairs, and Appropriations Committees, among others, involved themselves with discussions on realignments and closures.  By the end of the 1980s, following Reagan’s militarization build up, the first official BRAC took place. This 1988 BRAC was carried out through an independent commission, in order to facilitate an objective and nonpartisan process. As occurred in the 1988 BRAC and ensuing BRAC rounds, the Commission went before congressional committees and shared its analysis of the DOD’s military installation recommendations. The Commission’s analyses eventually helped shape BRAC bills introduced on the House and Senate floor, which allowed for the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.  An “all or nothing” approach was taken so as to avoid congressional members’ attempts at saving bases in their own backyards, so Congress had to vote the entire BRAC up or down.
The proceeding BRAC rounds occurred in 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005.  In recent years, there have been pushes for other rounds of BRAC, but efforts have failed. Now that the possibility of a BRAC round in 2017 has passed, supporters set their sights towards 2021.
The political roadblocks created by Congress’ resistance to another BRAC are in large part due to a) concern about a BRAC’s effect on their own state or district and b) the up-front cost of implementing a BRAC, without guarantee for savings.  The second concern was heightened due to the 2005 BRAC, which has earned a bad rep among many congress members. The 2005 BRAC round cost upwards of $35 billion, yielding $4-5 billion in future savings.  The potential upfront costs of a 2021 BRAC worry many members of Congress, who already spread the defense budget thin.
The other concern is due to the negative impact past BRAC rounds have had on some local community economies. A BRAC would cause a huge shift of both military personnel and jobs out of whatever district faces closures, which can drastically decrease local businesses’ success and a community’s employment.  This is especially true for those businesses whose revenue is based upon foot traffic due to a military installation’s location. As both military personnel and civilians become displaced, the likelihood of constituent support would drop greatly for any congress member who allowed a BRAC to impact their own state’s economic stability. 
The pros of another BRAC far outweigh the congressional concerns discussed above. BRAC rounds cut excess capacity, which in the end will be better for readiness, joint operation training, and will allow the DOD to focus on modernization efforts rather than force structure increase. The CATO Institute recently published a letter with the signed support of 45 scholars across the political spectrum from over 30 different organizations, which calls on the need for Congressional support of the Pentagon’s requests for a BRAC, in order to “eliminate waste” and ensure the proper flow and dispersal of defense resources.  
Along with the wide bipartisan support from scholars, academic institutions, and think tanks, comes similar initiatives to stir up support for a BRAC from within Congress. The Senate Armed Service Committee chairman and ranking member, Senator McCain and Senator Reed respectively, have formed a 2021 BRAC proposal that addresses the concerns resulting from the 2005 BRAC round.  The amendment was assisted by the recommendations of “the GAO, DOD, [Association of Defense Communities], CRS, former BRAC commissioners, various think tanks, [and] former DOD staff, etc.” Given the bipartisan support of this proposal by the two highest ranking members of SASC coupled by the added considerations of numerous governmental organizations, the prospects of a new BRAC should be assuring. 
Lastly, despite the upfront costs of a BRAC, the savings produced over the years cannot be ignored. Together, the past five BRAC rounds are allowing for about $12 billion in annual savings.  The backlash against the 2005 BRAC shouldn’t cloud the potential success of future BRACs, as the 2005 round was “more about rebalancing the force than cutting costs” and closed fewer bases than previous rounds.   Figure 2 demonstrates how a previous BRAC may provide data for organizations such as the US Government Accountability Office to analyze, in order to better shape future BRAC Commission recommendations.
BRAC embodies a concrete avenue for shifting focus towards creating a more efficient military. A round of BRAC should be seen as a practical and necessary step in what should be a constant reassessment and refinement in defense spending and resources. BRAC has support from the Pentagon, the current and past presidential administrations, along with numerous think tanks of both liberal and conservative leanings. A BRAC can lead to big savings down the line. Given their inevitability, Congress members should start planning now with how a BRAC may influence local businesses, and prepare their constituents for what is to come. Congress needs to accept the fact that not only does it take money to make money; it takes money to save money too.
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Additional Blog Posts
 With a quick search on Congress.gov, one can track all the legislation introduced and passed on a certain policy dating back to 1973-1974. It should come to no surprise that the lowest number of BRAC related legislation pieces introduced occurred in the early 1980s, during President Reagan’s militarization build up. Whereas, the number of BRAC related legislation and executive communications spiked in 1993-1994, during President Clinton’s administration, and again during President Bush’s administration between 2005-2008. It is interesting to put this legislative bill and amendment traffic into context of the administration, global and domestic economy, wars being fought, etc.