By Robert Moore
President Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made their first budget request of the new administration, making it the latest attempt by Pentagon officials to receive authorization from Congress for a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC)––the mechanism by which the Department of Defense is able to reorganize and streamline its massive infrastructure. To underscore the pressing need for this authority, Secretary Mattis sent a letter and comprehensive report to Congress earlier this month again justifying this request with thorough evidence and analysis.
Yet this will be the latest rejection of BRAC by politicians motivated more by parochial interests than an objective judgment on the nation’s needs.
In an age when agreement across the aisle on practically any issue is viewed with distain, elected officials routinely decry “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the federal government and mirror each others’ calls to increase efficiency and practice “good” or “smart” governance. Annual reports from oversight committees chronicling egregious and often comical government projects––Sen. Jeff Flake’s 2017 Wastebook includes highlights like $1.5 million to test the endurance of fish on treadmills––are always popular reads. While there is the customary problem of defining what actually constitutes waste, we could probably agree that programs, spending, or costs that the government itself cannot find a use for would definitively be wasteful. Right?
In their new report, the Pentagon estimates that it is paying for a whopping 19 percent more infrastructure than necessary to meet the future threats to our nation. This is remarkable reporting as the natural tendency of bureaucracies of any stripe is to demonstrate a need for more money and resources. They rarely have incentive to produce evidence that they are spending too much.
An organization paying to sustain excess overhead of that level would never be tolerated by any business held accountable to a bottom line every year. The business’s board of directors would demand immediate changes, or be faced with a rebellion by stockholders.
Where are the board of directors overseeing the Pentagon and why haven’t they acted to right this problem, which defense budgeters estimate could save upwards of $2 billion a year? Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to “raise and support armies” and “provide and maintain a navy,” which they do through appropriations and policy authorization bills annually. Through this process, Congress has denied the Pentagon authority for BRAC over the last five years.
It is true that we cannot expect a constitutionally mandated function of our federal government to be run exactly like a Fortune-500 company; inflexibility in certain areas could harm our national security. For the most part though, Congress is not avoiding BRAC because of some principled stand but due to handwringing over defense jobs and funding in their states and districts.
Unfortunately, this is likely the least difficult year politically to authorize a BRAC. As hard as it is to imagine, contentious elections in 2018 and 2020 will make Congress even more resistant to taking hard votes.
In January, Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that annually authorizes the Pentagon’s funding, called it congressional “cowardice” that excess infrastructure issues could not be settled. Yet even in his powerful position as the chief author of the authorization bill, McCain was unable to push such an initiative through his reluctant colleagues in the upper chamber. His counterpart in the House, Chairman Mac Thornberry, led efforts to defeat BRAC amendments from being attached to their bill.
It is no coincidence that Senator McCain has also championed anti-earmark efforts in Congress, and that some of the most vocal opposition to BRAC comes from members pushing to overturn earmark bans. Serial earmarkers and BRAC opposition share a common philosophical thread - prioritizing protection and growth of interests in their districts over the national good. In this light, issues like excess military infrastructure are more than budgetary issues; they become another casualty of a dysfunctional government unable to make headway on even the most obvious problems of waste and inefficiency.
Today, the United States might need a dose of BRAC for its own good. President Trump’s surprising election came on the wings of a grassroots wave that demanded a new and better way of governing in Washington. Forcing politicians to abandon schemes to protect their parochial interests under the guise of constitutionally-mandated functions like national security should be as attractive a sentiment as ‘Draining the Swamp’.
Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities and a former staffer for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee with nearly a decade of defense and foreign policy experience on Capitol Hill.
This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on October 21, 2017. Read more HERE.