Congress should give the Defense Department more authority to close excess facilities as a way to break an impasse that could be costing the military billions of dollars every year, according to a new report by the influential Heritage Foundation.
The proposal would allow the department to shutter bases with up to 500 civilian personnel without first notifying Capitol Hill and would also shorten the congressional notification period from 60 to 30 days when the DoD moves to close larger facilities.
It was part of a package of reforms proposed by Heritage defense budget analyst Frederico Bartels aimed at jumpstarting a review of excess military properties through the Base Realignment and Closure program, or BRAC, despite years of stonewalling by skeptical lawmakers.
"You would be able to adjust your real estate levels as you go," Bartels said of the DoD. "You wouldn't need to collect all those minor [real estate] actions and wait for a BRAC round that might come 10 or 15 years down the line."
Among D.C. think tanks, Heritage has become one of the most influential with the Trump White House. Then-candidate Donald Trump used Heritage's figures when pressing for a military buildup during the campaign, and just this week traveled to Heritage to give a speech on tax reform.
This year, Trump has requested a round of realignments and closures in 2021 as part of his defense budget submission, and the Pentagon pressed Congress this month to make good on the request as the House and Senate hammer out their annual defense policy bill.
The DoD is able to close or realign facilities with up to 300 civilian personnel without notifying Congress and without the BRAC process. But individual closures outside of BRAC are so politically fraught on Capitol Hill that the Pentagon has stopped attempting them, according to Bartels.
Bartels' proposal would expand DoD's authority and allow the military to more easily trim its unneeded facilities, which it estimates are 19 percent of the more than 438,000 properties it owns around the world, without getting caught up in congressional politics.
He also recommends key reforms to the BRAC process including assessments of DoD properties be done every other year to build up a database of reliable information that can be used to weigh closures, and to create a small permanent staff of public employees who specifically handle the closure and realignment process.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote a letter to the House Armed Services Committee this month providing the 19 percent excess property figure and urging a new BRAC round so the military could free up about $2 billion annually that is now spent on the unneeded facilities.
"I must be able to eliminate excess infrastructure in order to shift resources to readiness and modernization," Mattis wrote.
It appeared unlikely the House and Senate would authorize it during conference negotiations for the National Defense Authorization Act, despite some support for BRAC from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., over the summer. The bill is expected to be complete by December.
Lawmakers, especially in the House, are loathe to close facilities that can provide jobs and economic benefits in their districts and are hesitant to put up the billions of dollars in up-front money that would likely be needed to start a BRAC to reap savings years down the road.
The 2005 BRAC is estimated to have cost $24 billion and took a decade. DoD estimates it will save about $4 billion per year.
However, Bartels said he believes the high-level effort by Mattis could pay off with movement toward BRAC in Congress this year, though he also advised DoD to propose the recommended changes to Congress as part of its budget process next year.
"Honestly, I think that that [Mattis letter] could make a difference and maybe make the conference see that a new BRAC round would be really important for the nation and for our armed forces," he said.