WASHINGTON — Legislators on Capitol Hill vowed Friday to resist a recommendation from the Pentagon to close unneeded military bases around the country as a way to save money, saying communities could not afford it and defense budget cuts could be made elsewhere.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said proposing domestic base closures was “dangerous.” Many legislators said they wouldn’t support closing any U.S. bases unless the military looks first at Europe, where the Army plans to draw down two combat brigades by 2015. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said earlier this week that he wouldn’t support closing domestic bases before U.S. bases in Europe were shuttered.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said many installations overseas are “relics of the Cold War.”
As the Pentagon tries to trim its spending after a decade of war, its proposal to close or realign bases appeared also to be in part a political move to shift some of the more difficult budget decisions onto Congress, lawmakers and experts said. Some legislators questioned what was behind the announcement.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he would ask Pentagon officials if the request was an attempt to gain leverage over Congress in order to forestall automatic defense spending cuts that would be triggered starting next year under a new federal budget law.
“All that’s going to do is get a lot of the members very upset at them, this kind of political gamesmanship,” Begich said. “I hope that’s not the strategy.”
Under pressure from Congress to cut its budget, the Pentagon on Thursday introduced what it called its most ambitious cost-saving effort in a decade. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dropped an acronym that always produces intense emotions: BRAC, for Base Realignment and Closure. That’s the labored and often costly process of closing or shrinking unneeded military bases.
“We have no choice” because of cost-cutting demands from Congress, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told PBS’s “NewsHour.”
But in the past, BRAC hasn’t always proven to be a cost-saving measure. The last round of closures, in 2005, cost billions in closing facilities and transferring people and weapons. It also created confusion as some bases made the initial cut, only to be spared later.
By suggesting it start another round of closures, the Pentagon put Congress on the defensive to explain what it was doing to save money other than demanding the Pentagon make cuts, said Lawrence Korb, a budget expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank. At the same time, Korb argued, it distracts Congress from pursuing other cuts to popular weapons systems, military personnel and even pensions.
“It’s a sideshow to the main budget,” Korb said. “It’s very clever” of the Pentagon.
If Congress authorized the process, the Pentagon would issue a list of recommended closures to an independent commission appointed by the president. That commission would present a final list to the president and Congress for approval. Panetta said Thursday that process should begin “as soon as possible.”
Korb said it was unlikely that Congress would approve starting the process in an election year. Even if it did, it would take at least two years, he said, before the military would begin considering closing bases. Any recommendations could take as long as six years to implement.
Pentagon officials described BRAC as the responsible thing to do given their plans to shrink the size of the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. But officials didn’t include possible savings from BRAC in its budget proposal, which they said would save $487 billion over 10 years.
What the Pentagon called cuts, however, actually are reductions in future spending growth. Its base budget request calls for an increase of $36 billion over the next five years, or on average 2 percent growth every year.
To be sure, the Pentagon believes there will be some base closures and shrinking installations. Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said Friday that the Air Force could eliminate some bases because it has shrunk its fleet by hundreds of aircraft since 2005 and plans to cut 10,000 personnel in the next five years.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said that given the scheduled reduction in the size of the Army from 562,000 troops to 490,000 by 2017, some of its bases may get smaller as well. Both officials declined to offer specific bases that could be targeted.
“We’ll have to do some minor things, I think, probably, as we go through BRAC,” Odierno said. “But I think, for the most part, we have established our installations.”
The Marines are slated to shrink forces over five years by 20,000, leaving a force of 182,000, but Marine officials told McClatchy that there were no plans to alter or close bases.
It was unclear Friday whether the Navy would reduce personnel. Carter, the defense undersecretary, referred in his PBS interview to a smaller Navy, but didn’t specify whether he meant the number of people or the size of its fleet.
While the Pentagon decision may have been politically savvy, it doesn’t come without a cost to communities who fear that bases that provide jobs could be affected during tough economic times, Korb said.
“You shouldn’t be upsetting people unless you plan to do it,” Korb said.
Communities already are mobilizing in places such as South Carolina, which has an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent. The economic impact of military installations in the state is more than $13 billion, said Ike McLeese, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce in the state’s capital.
He said that the cities of Columbia, Charleston, Sumter and Beaufort are preparing to defend their bases, which include two Air Force bases.
“All of us are on alert and ready to be in the business of advocating,” he said. He added that the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, “is now focused on this issue, energized.”