BRAC: Bringing Some Fiscal Sanity to Washington

While the Bush Administration has established a dismal record on federal spending, a bit of bright news is on the horizon in the form of the soon-to-be-completed report of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. If implemented by the President and Congress, the commission’s work will save taxpayers billions of dollars.

Traditionally, military base closings have been one of the toughest measures for Congress to undertake. Military bases are often large employers in congressional districts, and members will fight tooth and nail for their preservation, making whatever deals are necessary to ensure their survival.

In the late 1980s, under the leadership of a still somewhat obscure representative from Texas named Dick Armey, Congress adopted the BRAC process, whereby an independent commission would select sites for closing. The idea of government decisions made by independent authorities can be traced to the Progressive Era and reflects the thoughts of Chester Bowles, who once said that “government is too big and important to be left to the politicians.”

Besides getting a list of recommendations from an independent commission, the BRAC process had another very unique aspect—all recommendations would have to be either accepted as a whole by Congress or rejected—no logrolling is allowed. Thus, legislators whose districts are adversely impacted cannot trade votes with other legislators on other issues to get their districts exempted.

The BRAC process has had four rounds—1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995—and achieved significant savings in all four cycles. These four rounds have led to closure or realignment of 451 installations, including 97 major ones, resulting in annual taxpayer savings of around $7 billion.

Nonetheless, the Defense Department still shoulders a heavy surplus of domestic military bases and is hopeful the work of this year’s commission—chaired by former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi—will lead to a substantial reduction in infrastructure. Base closing is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s efforts to transform the nation’s defense infrastructure, a worthy undertaking, made more important by the events of 9/11. Rumsfeld argues, “We must do all that we can to identify and remove all the excess that exists to be better able to address those pressing needs to help the warfighter.”

Opponents of base closings often cite the devastating impact on local economies. Yet studies indicate closings to date have had a relatively modest adverse local economic impact. A 1996 study by Rand’s National Defense Research Institute made the case that economic pain (in terms of such variables as unemployment, school enrollments, housing vacancies) caused by base closings often turns out to be less than initially claimed. And a Congressional Budget Office report claimed that base closings will mean a loss of 226,000 jobs over 12 years. Of course, re-deploying the savings from the base closings into the private sector and other areas of defense spending will mean hundreds of thousands of other new jobs to offset initial losses.

After they deal with the 2005 BRAC recommendations, Congress and the President should consider applying this type of process to other areas of the federal government. Comptroller General David Walker, for example, has suggested that the Postal Service can achieve its goal of shutting down post offices that are “non-performing” by using a BRAC-like commission process. Utilized government-wide, such a process could probably easily ferret out tens of billions of dollars in low-priority spending.

The BRAC will transmit its final report to the President on September 8. Once they receive the report, the President and Congress should approve it immediately.