This year’s boisterous election is expected to halt nearly all legislation on Capitol Hill, and President Barack Obama’s pitch for a new round of military base closures is expected to be one of those proposals stopped in its tracks.
The perennial proposition is never a particularly popular one among lawmakers, many of whom enjoy the economic benefits that such bases bring to their districts, but the Pentagon says it’s necessary periodically to cut down on inefficiencies.
Georgia saw two of its bases shuttered and another reduced in size the last time the Pentagon set in motion a Base Realignment and Closure process, or BRAC, in 2005. And while Georgia lawmakers and defense budget experts said they do not expect Congress to allow another round of the process in the immediate future, they acknowledged that one will come eventually and Georgia will need to be ready for it.
For the past several years, Obama has called on lawmakers to authorize a new round of BRAC, requests Congress has quickly and vehemently shut down following the politically bruising scramble that characterized the process 11 years ago.
In its request last week of nearly $583 billion for the budget year that begins Oct. 1., the Defense Department said it wanted $4 million to begin planning a new round of BRAC for 2019. The Pentagon said it already had more infrastructure than it needs and that eliminating any excess would save tax dollars and put about $2 billion back into the operating forces by 2025.
The Pentagon said the need to reduce such excess facilities is so critical that if Congress doesn’t cooperate, the “Department will explore any and all authorities that Congress has provided to eliminate wasteful infrastructure.”
Georgia observers said they aren’t particularly worried about lawmakers approving another round of BRAC while control of the White House and Senate is at stake.
“I would be very surprised if you see a base closure round authorized,” said former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who now consults on issues such as defense and cybersecurity at DLA Piper in Atlanta.
Dan Grazier, a fellow at the Straus Military Reform Project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said BRAC is typically pursued when it can inflict minimal pain on lawmakers’ re-election bids.
“BRAC is a deeply, deeply unpopular political issue,” he said, “and so they definitely tend to pass BRAC laws in off-years.”
There is still a long road ahead before any final spending plan for the Pentagon is ultimately signed into law. The House and Senate will weigh in with their own proposals later this spring, and with the November elections soaking up this year’s calendar — and nearly all political oxygen on Capitol Hill — most final decisions on spending are expected to be punted until the lame-duck session after the election.
Last time around
The last BRAC was largely a mixed bag for Georgia.
The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission closed the Army’s Fort McPherson in southwestern Atlanta and the Navy Supply Corps school in Athens, and it significantly downsized Fort Gillem on the outskirts of Atlanta. But overall, the state came out a net winner as more missions came to the big bases.
Overall, the size of Georgia’s military presence has been fairly stable in recent years. From 2003 to 2013 the number of military personnel stationed in Georgia rose by about 20,000, and the state is currently the fifth-largest host of active-duty troops, with 137,000 active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel, according to Pentagon figures from 2013.
BRAC has left in its wake many distinct headaches and possibilities for the communities surrounding former military bases.
The civilian agency steering redevelopment at Fort McPherson, for example, worked for years to find new investors and developers for the 488-acre post that closed in September 2011.
Brian Hooker, the executive director of the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, which was recently rebranded as Fort Mac LRA, said his group was forced to stay flexible after the recession and the Army’s practices for handling the sale of shuttered real estate changed plans.
“We spoke with dozens if not hundreds of prospective suitors who wanted to buy some or all of the property over the years, from when the first plan was developed in 2007 all the way up through when we began engaging Tyler Perry seriously in 2014,” he said in an interview.
“What we found over and over again is that the development community did not believe they could make it work. We’d have conversations with folks, we’d lay out what we knew about the property, what the conditions of the property are, the conditions of the infrastructure, other federal requirements that we have to meet in order to buy the property from the Army, and they’d take a look at it and say ‘there’s too much cost involved for us to make this possible. We’ll pass.’ We got that time and time again prior to Tyler Perry coming to the table,” Hooker said.
Stakeholders continue to warn that Georgia, as well as every other state, should not get too comfortable about what’s to come as numbers are bound to shrink across the country.
“Once you take it for granted, that’s when you get in trouble,” Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said in an interview.
That’s particularly true in Georgia, where the military presence generates an estimated $21 billion a year for the state’s economy.
Stakeholders have tried in recent years to make the state’s nine bases “BRAC-proof” for when the time comes. Boosters of the Dobbins Air Reserve Base, for example, created a business plan and updated land-use plans around the installation in order to show its worth to state and federal agencies. Others have focused on building support among the surrounding communities, upping their presence in Washington and emphasizing their versatility in order to attract new missions.
“You have to always be aggressive and making sure that your bases are considered valuable by their respective services,” Chambliss said.
The Pentagon says it’s critical to periodically review its basing and force structure needs to make sure its limited resources are optimally placed. Cutting money from one area of the budget can allow for increases elsewhere, such as for weapons systems.
“If there is a legitimate reason to close a base because it does not serve a military need, then it should be closed,” said Grazier, from the Straus Military Reform Project. “In an ideal world, decisions of this kind would on be based on the consideration of military effectiveness. But the reality is, political considerations often trump effectiveness.”
For his part, Isakson is bullish about Georgia’s chances for avoiding deep cuts under any future BRAC.
“We’re well-positioned to continue to be a leader in the nation in terms of military defense,” he said.
Lithonia Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said the struggle can be boiled down to the rigid spending caps that restrict spending at the Pentagon through 2021, which he blamed Republicans for forcing Obama to sign into law in 2011. (Republicans say the White House initially came up with many of the underlying principles of the 2011 law, which they consider crucial for keeping government spending under control.)
“We’re just simply not meeting the needs that we have in order to keep up with the changing times,” Johnson said in an interview.
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Staff writers Jeremy Redmon and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.