Political Science Students Debate the Impact of Military Base Closings

Political Science Students Debate the Impact of Military Base Closings

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By Stephen Schwalbe, PhD
Special to InMilitaryEducation

At American Military University (AMU), political science students and instructors tackle the current issues impacting our nation. For example, students in our Legislatures POLS620 course are exploring Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) policies. Naturally, this topic sparks strong debate—AMU’s student body largely consists of military and public service professionals. BRAC decisions have the potential to directly affect military, contractor, and civilian workforces in and around our base communities. In fact, some students are conducting in-depth research about Congress’s role in national security and exploring their civic rights to lobby Congressional leadership and make their voices heard.

The original purpose of BRAC was to provide the Department of Defense (DOD) with an adjustable infrastructure to scale force size without appearing to punish members of Congress who have military installations in their states or districts. This process has been used since the Nixon Administration. The stated goal for each BRAC round is to cut up to 25 percent of the DoD infrastructure.  However, the aggregate of the current proposed cuts exceeds the amount of cuts made in the previous five rounds! Usually, the drawdowns are around 10 percent of the infrastructure, hence, the continued need for more BRAC rounds. 

In March 2012, Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Leon Panetta formally requested that Congress authorize two more BRAC rounds in 2013 and 2015. This is almost exactly what we saw happen in 1997 when SecDef William Cohen asked for two more BRAC rounds for 1999 and 2001.  However, Congress was still upset with President Clinton’s interference in the 1995 BRAC round regarding two Air Force logistic centers in the delegate-rich states of Texas and California that were cited for closure, but kept open (Clinton was up for reelection in 1996). As a result, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld requested one more BRAC round in 2005, which was approved by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2002.

Since the last BRAC round in 2005, the Defense infrastructure grew as the U.S. continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today, the war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is drawing down quickly.  At the same time, the country is trying to recover from an economic recession with significant budget cuts throughout the federal government, especially within DoD. As such, one important way to achieve cost savings is to pare down its infrastructure to match its force size. 

Two More Rounds of BRAC?

Much like 10 years ago, SecDef Panetta recently floated the idea to Congress for two more BRAC rounds.  However, he did not submit the proposal in either the 2013 DoD Budget Request or the 2013 Defense Authorization Bill.  Hence, this effort appears to be more of a trial balloon. The reaction to Panetta’s request was swift. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military construction, held a hearing to challenge the SecDef’s proposed BRAC round in 2013. The main arguments against approving another BRAC round were:

1.      The BRAC 2005 round cost $14 billion more than DoD estimates

2.      There was no money saved due to the BRAC 2005 round (at least not until at least 2018, which is three years later than promised)

3.      There are still many overseas bases to be closed before domestic ones are (and, they do not require congressional approval)

This type of resistance is common in Congress whenever a BRAC proposal is made. In this case, McCaskill is concerned about losing Fort Leonard Wood in her state. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is worried about losing Pease Air Force Base and/or the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Representative Buck McKeon (R-California), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, is against another BRAC round partially because both Fort Irwin and the Navy’s China Lake complex are in his congressional district. As would be expected, those members of Congress with military installations at risk are going to be against any future BRAC rounds, while those without are sympathetic to DoD’s situation. Fortunately, those in favor of more BRAC rounds will always outnumber those members of the Congress not in favor.

This is one of many dynamic significant issues that students discuss and write about in American Public University’s graduate program for political science.  In the Legislatures course (POLS 620), there are forum discussions that cover lobbying in Congress and Congress’s role in national security. Along with BRAC, students tackle such issues as activist justices on the Supreme Court, differences in presidential elections, and partisanship in Congress throughout our history. 

About the Author

Dr. Schwalbe, Program Director of Political Science at American Military University, retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service.  He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the Air Force Academy; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University; a Master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School; a Master’s degree from the Naval War College; an ABD from The George Washington University; and, a PhD from Auburn University in Public Policy.

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