By Roxana Tiron | September 6, 2017 7:48AM ET
The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee plan to use the debate over the 2018 defense authorization to wade into the politically troublesome issue of future base closings.
As a result of the urgency of passing Hurricane Harvey aid, the Senate has pushed off until next week debate on the military policy bill. When the chamber takes up the bill, using the House-passed H.R. 2810 as the vehicle, Armed Services chairman John McCain, (R-Ariz.), and ranking Democrat Jack Reed, (D-R.I.), have prepared an amendment that would ask for a military force and infrastructure review and recommendations.
Under their proposal (No. 498), the Defense Department would compile the list of bases to be closed by the fall of 2019. That list would go to the Government Accountability Office for review, followed by 60-day public comment period and an up-or-down vote by Congress.
Base closings often provoke strong community opposition because of the economic impact, making such a vote politically difficult for affected lawmakers. Still, it’s traditionally been the Senate that has first backed new rounds of base closures, and the infrastructure review may pave the way for the next round of closures..
A base closure round, or BRAC, “always is hard and it’s not popular,” Andrew Hunter, a former House Armed Services Committee aide and senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Tuesday at a Heritage Foundation event.
BRAC always needs a “champion,” and this time there are three critical ones: McCain, Reed and Adam Smith, (D-Wash), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. Having champions “is the critical event.” Another key player on defense issues, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas.), still needs to be convinced on the need for more base closings.
The McCain-Reed proposal also has the Pentagon’s backing. The Defense Department has been asking for authority to start a new round for the last five years spanning two administrations.
Lucian Niemeyer, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, made the case for BRAC in the context of a new pending national security strategy. New weapons, new ways of employing weapons and military readiness necessitate an updated basing strategy, Niemeyer, a former Senate Armed Services Committee professional staff member, said at the Heritage event.
The last round of base closings was in 2005. A new round is necessary “to make prudent decisions” about where to station the U.S. military forces, he said. In addition, Niemeyer argued, an official BRAC round enables the Pentagon to assist communities affected by closures and to foster a quicker redevelopment, rather than having those communities go through base closures outside the BRAC process.
Senate Democrats may be faced with another politically complicated vote: an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that would eliminate sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that would take place if government spending bills bust the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The amendment (No. 456) may be difficult for Democrats concerned that Republicans would increase only defense spending and not funding for domestic programs. Democrats have successfully used sequestration during budget talks to argue for pairing slight increases in domestic spending alongside defense. Look for Cotton’s amendment — if brought up to the floor — to possibly become a marker for undoing sequestration in Congress. The amendment specifically states that its purpose is to undo sequestration for both defense and domestic programs.
The defense debate will also provide a forum for discussion of pressing global issues. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have drawn amendments from both Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told reporters yesterday he will press again to sunset the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force that have guided the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Paul and other critics have called these war authorizations inadequate for operations against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
The Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military will likely also become focus of other floor amendments.