By Tinkering with Process, a New BRAC Can Save Billions

Ross Marchand

June 27, 2018

Congress has seen more than its fair share of Pentagon budget kurfluffles over the past decade, ranging from sequester showdowns to the dysfunctional (and expensive) F-35 program. But, members of Congress across the ideological spectrum can agree that the string of forlorn, nearly-vacant military bases across the nation ought to be shuttered or consolidated. Talk has increased of another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), in which a commission studies military bases and recommends closures subject to congressional approval. The notion of taxpayers footing the bill for nearly-abandoned installations is an unpopular one, and for good reason. A letter signed by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and 44 other groups across the political spectrum reinforced the bipartisan idea of closing more bases.

But the devil lies in the details, as lawmakers are keen to argue that their districts’ bases are the exception to the rule, “if it ain’t being used, don’t fund it.” Even sparsely-populated bases, after all, support some local jobs, and no Congressman wants to come home to incensed, unemployed constituents. Lawmakers are also leery of pursuing a round of base closures after the last round, undertaken in 2005, proved underwhelming. Congressmen have legitimate reason to fear a failed BRAC round; the Department of Defense (DoD) promised annual savings of over $2 billion a year last time, but “only” delivered $500 million. Moreover, the costs of closure likely exceeded the benefits for several years before the savings started to accumulate.

But in weighing the pros and cons of another round of BRAC, members of Congress should take a full accounting of all previous rounds of military closures and assess what went right and what went wrong. As it turns out, the DoD has had a largely successful history in implementing BRAC. The first military base closure commission studied the feasibility of shuttering US installations, and recommended the closing and realignment of 145 U.S. domestic bases and facilities. Three successful rounds of BRAC followed (1991, 1993, 1995) before the first comprehensive assessment of the commission’s activities was released in 2001. 

In studying the net savings of the closing (or consolidation) of 451 installations, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that the average savings of each round of closure amounted to $1.5 billion (or $2.1 billion in 2017 dollars). Thus, unsurprisingly, expectations were set high on the eve of BRAC’s fifth round. But, as explained by Brookings Senior Fellow Michael E. O’Hanlon and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), there were “fewer obvious targets” for closure, and “questionable analyses of environmental remediation costs” led to an underestimation of total closure costs. As a result, annual net savings from the final BRAC round were only a quarter of previous rounds’ annual savings, despite a record (182) amount of bases closed or consolidated.

While these problems pose significant issues for future rounds of BRAC, they are not insurmountable. When military base property is transferred to the private sector or other government agencies, cleanup costs typically vary widely depending on the intended future use of the site. Transforming the closed base location into an industrial park frequently requires the least cleanup, as exposure risks are minimal compared to other uses. Congress, then, should contemplate a requirement that former military sites be repurposed for industrial uses. Converting army sites into schools is unwise, and unnecessarily increases the cost of base closures. Additionally, subsequent reviews of the net savings of base closures should consider the public health savings that come with military site abandonment. Every additional year of military control over the sight means higher public health expenditures, due to hazardous open burnings and perchlorate leakages. Unwinding these activities is a clear win for taxpayers, and should be accounted as such.  

As can be seen with the last BRAC experiment, systematically shuttering bases is not always foolproof. But when contemplating whether to go for another round of closures and consolidations, congressmen should consider the experiences of all five rounds of BRAC, instead of the lackluster finale. Achieving savings on par with the first four rounds would spare taxpayers $20 billion over the next decade, money better spent investing in businesses than catering to defunct bases. Hawks and doves alike can agree that maintaining empty nests at taxpayers’ expense is a bird-brained scheme.