WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is seeking a new military base closing round in fiscal 2021 under its new federal budget proposal, but a key GOP lawmaker is shooting it down while a key Democrat is supporting it.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., dismissed the proposal for a Base Realignment and Closure round upon learning of it from a reporter on Thursday. It's wrong to shutter facilities when the military is rebuilding as Trump has proposed, he said.
Inhofe is one of the key gatekeepers in Congress for a new BRAC round because of his committee's jurisdiction, and his opposition is a bad sign for the proposal becoming reality. He has praised the budget's approach to debt reduction and its 30 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, but he said of the BRAC proposal: "I think it's a bad idea."
"The first thing that's a certainty about any BRACs is they cost money in the first three years," he said. "We've never been in a position where we have been so undermanned and undersized. The budget's inadequate, and this isn't the time to obligate more funding."
The recommendation — in a 2018 budget proposal that sparked backlash from Capitol Hill Democrats, and some Republicans, even before its release Tuesday — is sure to be controversial all on its own. The budget has a long legislative road before it becomes law, with lawmakers expected to make many adjustments along the way.
Military leaders have pushed for another BRAC since 2013, arguing that their current domestic footprint is too large given reductions in force size and equipment modernization in recent years. DoD estimates it could close 20 percent excess capacity for a savings of $2 billion or more annually by 2027.
Last year, the House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., co-sponsored legislation known as the Military Infrastructure Consolidation Efficiency Act, to let the military close excess bases outside of a BRAC.
At a time when many Democrats are loathe to compliment the president, Smith, on Friday, said in statement that it was, "positive to see that the Trump Administration has recognized the value of a new" BRAC and made its request.
Smith said the move would help the military cope with statutory budget caps, "and allow DoD to redirect taxpayer money that is currently wasted on excess infrastructure toward more important defense priorities."
"Congress should take lessons learned from the previous BRAC round, make improvements to the process, and help the Department reduce its excess infrastructure capacity," Smith said.
HASC Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has not ruled out a BRAC, telling National Defense magazine earlier this month that if "we have one, it will be a lot narrower and more specifically defined than the last one, which has left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, including mine."
Last year, Inhofe's predecessor as chair, then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., spearheaded language in the 2017 defense policy bill that denied the Pentagon the authority to conduct a BRAC. Her argument then was the 2005 BRAC's costs ballooned 67 percent during the last round, and DoD cannot afford it.
The subcommittee's ranking member Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he wanted to hold hearings on the idea, but was leaning against it. He argued BRACs "force every community in America to hire lawyers and lobbyists, even those not in danger."
"I want to hear what the military has to say about it," Kaine said. "I have traditionally felt BRAC's are an inefficient way to rationalize real estate and bases, and there is a more efficient way to do it. Have the military make recommendations to us, like they make recommendations about weapons systems. We agree with them on two-thirds, and one-third we change."
Virginia is home to eight military installations and the fourth largest population of active-duty personnel — 117,000 people, according to Governing Magazine.
Both Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said they are open to discussions on BRAC. McCain has previously characterized Congress's reluctance to confront the issue as "cowardice," but they each expressed wariness.
"They're not infallible, so I want to be very careful of that," McCain said. "There's no administration in 20 years that has not supported a BRAC — because then you don't have to have Congress involved. You just do what a group of people want."
Reed acknowledged there is military overhead, "that we could dispense with," but he said the last BRAC cost more than it saved. He favored saving money that would flow back into DoD's operations and maintenance accounts.
"It's always been a very sensitive issue, because every facility is in play to a degree — some more than others," Reed said. "That's why we have to set very clear parameters about what would be considered."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.