Murphy's Law: Vampire Politics

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May 9, 2016: One of the most troublesome aspects of cutting the military budget is closing unneeded facilities. In the United States the budget reductions that began in 2008 are going to end in a few years and at that point the military will have 22 percent more “infrastructure” (mainly unused bases and related facilities) than it needs. This is an old problem and was supposed to have been solved in 1989 with the passage of the BRAC (Base Closure and Realignment Commission) law that allows the Department of Defense to unilaterally close unneeded bases. This is a politically sensitive act. Some local politician will always raise a stink and the local congressman and senator will feel compelled to "do something" in Washington to save the base. BRAC works by establishing, whenever needed, an impartial commission that selects, from among all those facilities the Department of Defense no longer needs, the ones to be closed and then send the list to the president for approval and then to Congress, which has 45 days to muster a majority to disapprove. That rarely happens because bases selected for closure are usually the ones with the fewest defenders in Congress. But BRAC also contained some provisions for closing bases quietly and without fuss. This irritated many in Congress, and now laws were passed to eliminate these "stealth" closings. Interfering with these base closings wastes money but in times of high unemployment, any kind of government waste is more popular because it provides a few highly publicized jobs.

Meanwhile, experience has shown that closing military bases usually turns into a financial bonanza for the military, as well as the areas where the bases are located. Many bases have, over the years, found themselves getting surrounded by growing suburbs, or even urban growth. Although it is widely known that the bases closed since the 1980s have actually helped the local communities (on average) most politicians (and the media) instinctively try to stop the process.

Closed bases have usually attracted commercial firms that move in and provide more, and higher paying, jobs. The former base property now pays local taxes, which reduces the tax load for everyone else in the area. There are still hundreds of bases out there eligible for closure, although most are quite small. But most are now sitting on very valuable land. In the past, the Department of Defense would simply give the land to local communities. But now the land is being sold, often for over a billion dollars for some bases, providing the military with more money for its shrinking budget. The military has long had income like this, often from the sale of surplus equipment. But with so many bases liable for closure, the Department of Defense is looking at billions in additional cash.

The last successful BRAC closures was in 2005. The one attempted in 2015 failed and Congress has shown no willingness to approve any more. Yet the U.S. military is shrinking and without BRAC there are going to be a lot more empty buildings on existing bases. Some of the smaller bases will only be occupied by security guards.

 


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