As Deputy Secretary of Defense during Ronald Reagan’s first term, Frank Carlucci oversaw the largest build-up of American military forces in the country’s history. From 1981 to 1985, total military expenditures topped $1.4 trillion. Then, just three years later, Carlucci chartered the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. Its goal? To drastically cut military operating cuts by closing unnecessary domestic bases.
Since Carlucci chartered the commission, Congress has authorized five rounds of BRAC recommendations. The first four BRAC rounds occurred at regular intervals and led to the closure of more than 350 bases, with annual recurring savings of about $7 billion. But the BRAC commission has not convened since 2005, though it advised that the next round should take place in 2015, with subsequent rounds occurring every eight years after that. Instead, in 2012, the House Armed Services Committee rejected a Pentagon proposal to close more bases. Just a few years later, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 explicitly prohibited future BRAC rounds.
These acts reflect Congress’s fear that closing bases is bad politics: Representatives often believe that voting to close bases will cost them reelection. But this fear misses the point. If the economic hardship of a base closure can be mitigated by targeted compensation, such a closure can, in fact, be a major victory for constituents. A reinstated BRAC commission that sets aside funding to compensate and rebuild affected areas would save taxpayer dollars, revitalize local communities, and bring the benefits of base closures to both local and national governments.
As it is, Congressional sidelining of BRAC has real consequences for the American taxpayer. As of 2014, Congress spent more money maintaining excess military infrastructure—about $6 billion—than countries such as Sweden or Belgium spent on their entire defense budget. American military bases have around 22 percent excess infrastructural capacity, meaning that there is plenty of room to consolidate spending without undermining the military’s goals. A new round of BRAC could recommend action that would save the US billions of dollars. In fact, in 2017, the Department of Defense specifically requested that a new round of BRAC be authorized in 2021, projecting savings of at least $2 billion per year.
A common concern is that BRAC closures may affect military readiness—but the commission’s recommendations are made to minimize military impact. The Department of Defense (DOD) reported that “when past closures involved bases which had ‘difficult to reconstitute’ assets, in almost all cases these assets were retained by the Service for continued use.” Furthermore, if BRAC recommends the closure of a base that later becomes necessary, the military can simply re-open the base. Such a move still saves federal dollars: Research has shown that it is more cost-effective to shutter and then reconstitute a base than it is to maintain excess infrastructure.
Other BRAC critics argue that bases should be maintained in order to minimize disruption to local ecosystems. But base closures often provide positive opportunities for community development. Many Air Force Bases and Air Stations that have been closed through BRAC now serve as civilian airports. Others have become prime land for universities. Bases can also be repurposed as housing, shops, and restaurants that boost economic activity. Former base locations can even be transformed into public parks or green spaces. These examples challenge the narrative that closing bases necessarily hurts surrounding communities.
Sadly, legislators rarely focus on the upsides to base closures. Instead, the conversation around bases often focuses more on politics than public benefit. The BRAC commission has become a political puzzle, with Congresspeople protecting their bases as if it were necessary to win reelection. In some cases, legislators have even leveraged votes on bills or confirmations to block base closures. For example, South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base was slated to be closed during the BRAC round of 2005. In protest, South Dakota Senator John Thune stated that he would vote against George W. Bush’s nominee for Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Thune prevailed: Later that year, the commission voted 8 to 1 to remove Ellsworth from the closure list. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe faced a similar situation that same year. Fighting three base closures in her state, Snowe worked tirelessly to highlight the importance of the bases. Like Thune, Snowe’s efforts proved successful: Two out of the three bases remained opened. A new round of BRAC must change this political calculus. That way, BRAC’s legitimate goals—saving taxpayer dollars and reducing excess infrastructure—can be debated openly.
A recent attempt at BRAC reform arrived in 2017 with the introduction of the McCain-Reed Amendment, which called for a new, more modest round of BRAC. The bill proposed imposing a $5 billion cap on the recommendations and increasing Congressional oversight. Though the amendment is right to bring back BRAC, Congress does not deserve greater oversight of its already politicized recommendations commission: The independence of BRAC is its best insulation from political motivations. Instead, BRAC should develop a formula to compensate localities following the closure of a base. According to the DOD, BRAC closures have saved more than $12 billion annually. If the Department allocated even a quarter of these savings to ease the cost burden on localities as they transition land from military to civilian use, there would be less pressure on politicians to oppose base closures in their district. Whether the other three-quarters of those savings go to other forms of military spending or just back to the taxpayers, the key point is that BRAC must ensure local communities are justly compensated.
To do so, the DOD would have to devise a formula that calculates the job and revenue loss from each base closure to determine how much funding its locality should receive each year. Once funding is allocated to former bases, the use of funds should be at the discretion of state and municipal authorities. From there, local leaders would decide how to best distribute resources, taking into account community interests and needs. Whenever possible, town halls should be held to incorporate local perspectives. Leaders should also be encouraged to hire regional companies for construction whenever possible.
Although this locally-oriented BRAC will not magically save taxpayer dollars, it will go a long way toward improving the debate about base closures and promoting community redevelopment. Often thought of as a distant, wonky commission, BRAC can take great strides to become cost efficient at the federal level and economically transformative at the local level by adopting a new focus on affected communities.