House panel wrestles with BRAC questions
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
WASHINGTON — At a time when the military is looking to cut costs, the Defense Department has documented excess capacity at bases, installations and depots across the country.
But the prospect of another base-closing round like the one in 2005 that hit Hampton Roads generated plenty of push back Thursday from Republicans and Democrats alike during a congressional hearing.
The issue: The process costs money up front, the savings take years to realize and panel members were skeptical that the benefit outweighed the cost.
Pentagon officials who appeared before the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee faced pointed questions about the effectiveness of the 2005 process commonly known as BRAC, Base Realignment and Closure commission.
Costs to implement 2005 BRAC increased 66 percent from initial estimates, and it will take 13 years to recoup that investment, according Government Accountability Office.
"BRAC 2005 was an absolute failure," said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, the panel's chairman.
The Obama administration has not formally requested another BRAC round, something Pentagon officials stressed. But they also emphasized the need to reduce excess capacity and defended BRAC process as fair, comprehensive and accountable.
The Defense Department had 24 percent excess capacity according to a 2004 report. The 2005 BRAC round, which sought to realign forces – not just cut — only reduced that capacity by 3.4 percent. Some of it is conversationally known as "World War II wood," said Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack, built in the 1940s when World War II swelled the nation's fighting forces into the millions.
By comparison, the Army plans to reduce its active-duty ranks from 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000 by 2020.
"The Army has a lot of infrastructure, and through the years we've worked to refine it, shrink it, and BRAC rounds have assisted," she said.
And BRAC savings make a difference, said Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Conger. The last five rounds of BRAC totaled savings that equal $12 billion a year, he said.
Conger also conceded that BRAC costs money up front.
"It's a fair thing to say you're going to have to spend money to save money," he said..
That prospect seemed hard to swallow for committee members wrestling with tight budgets due to across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration.
"This costs money," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. "And if you're going to justify it within the budget structure we're living with, you can't make it work within the numbers."