June 27, 2017
By: Todd Harrison
Another week, another finding of wasteful defense spending. Last Wednesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) charged that the Pentagon wasted some $28 million over the past decade on uniforms for the Afghan army. That’s real money but $28 million in waste over 10 years should not be grabbing headlines. To put it in perspective, $28 million is 0.0004 percent of the defense budget over the past 10 years—a truly insignificant figure.
Of course, small pockets of waste are scattered all over the budget; a few million dollars in wasteful spending in one small area, like buying uniforms for another country’s military, means there is likely a few million dollars of waste in hundreds of other accounts. But there are much larger, systemic sources of waste in the defense budget and as lawmakers prepare to take up the annual defense authorization bills this week, they should not let SIGAR’s findings distract from the much-needed broader reforms.
One of the largest sources of waste in the defense budget—and one that Congress can fix with a single piece of legislation—is the massive number of excess bases and facilities the Defense Department maintains here in the United States. The military has requested permission from Congress to launch another round of base closures year after year, projecting savings of roughly $2 billion per year if allowed to close some of this excess infrastructure. But every year, Congress denies those requests.
With few exceptions, the Department of Defense can’t close installations in the United States without permission from Congress. Since the end of the Cold War, the only way Congress has allowed these closures to happen is through an independent commission, known as a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission. A new BRAC is desperately needed: The Defense Department estimates it has more than 20 percent excess capacity, most of it in the Air Force and Army. For that reason, I joined 45 scholars from 33 think tanks and academic institutions across the political spectrum in signing an open letter calling on Congress to step up to the challenge and authorize a new round of BRAC this year.
To be clear, no one is suggesting that the military cut all of its excess capacity. This BRAC would eliminate only 2 to 5 percent of the excess, leaving plenty of room to grow the force in the future if necessary. In the meantime, a BRAC would eliminate $2 billion in wasteful spending each year, much-needed money as lawmakers fight over the size of the defense budget.
The problem, of course, is political. This wasteful spending on excess bases and facilities pays for people’s salaries—mostly government civilian employees and contractors—and eliminating the waste means eliminating some of those jobs. Moreover, the pain from base closures is concentrated in a small number of communities, which will lobby fiercely against closures in Congress.
Instead of focusing only on who might be hurt in the future by closing excess bases, Congress should also consider who is being hurt right now by not allowing the military to close excess bases—the opportunity costs. In a constrained budget environment, $2 billion wasted on unneeded bases and facilities means that $2 billion in other priorities are going unmet. For example, the Pentagon has been forced to make significant cuts to military construction and facilities sustainment accounts over the past several years, depriving bases of the funding needed for basic upkeep and maintenance. Buildings, roads and runways that are dilapidated and falling apart harm military readiness and local communities. It is death by a thousand cuts.
But to be successful, this BRAC will need to be different than previous rounds, and Congress needs to write the BRAC legislation carefully to ensure it is different. First, the legislation should specify that each action recommended by the BRAC commission break even within five years—i.e. the savings over five years must be greater than or equal to the implementation costs. Too many of the moves in the previous BRAC had high upfront costs but little ongoing savings. Second, this BRAC must consider the need to maintain geographic diversity in major military installations so the military can recruit from a broad segment of U.S. society. It is hard for the military to recruit in regions where it does not have as much of a connection to the local communities, and recruiting the best and brightest requires casting a broad net. Third, the legislation should create a more robust and independent cost estimation process to check the math before the commission makes its recommendations. A valid criticism of the most recent BRAC is that the costs and savings estimates were overly optimistic. Having an independent body outside the Defense Department conduct a separate assessment of each BRAC recommendation would help prevent this from happening again.
Several key members of Congress have expressed some support for BRAC this year, including Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. There finally appears to be real momentum to implement a new BRAC commission. Congress should seize it.