Base-closing commission takes issue with Pentagon plan

Liz Sidoti: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A federal commission approved all but 14 percent of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s recommendations for closing or consolidating U.S. military bases — but it also took issue with the Pentagon in a final report sent to President Bush.

The nine-member panel said the Defense Department overestimated savings by $30 billion and that some of the proposals for streamlining the Army, Navy and Air Force might have made the services less efficient.

Also, the commission questioned whether the restructuring should have been postponed until a major review of the national defense strategy was finished. And the commission said it was hampered by what it called a failure of the Defense and Homeland Security departments to coordinate and define where homeland defense ends and homeland security begins.

“A gray area of overlap between these two distinct but related spheres of authority and responsibility persists despite four years’ having elapsed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” the report chided.

The base-closing process “could have been a prime opportunity to shrink this gray and inherently nebulous boundary” had the two departments coordinated on the base-closing plan, the commission said.

The president now must decide whether to accept the panel’s plan. Last month, Bush, using the commission’s nickname, told reporters, “In order for the process to be nonpolitical, it’s very important to make it clear that the decision of BRAC will stand, as far as I am concerned.”
Bush could reject the report altogether or send it back to the commission for more changes.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman would not say whether Rumsfeld, who has expressed reservations about some of the commission’s changes, will recommend approval or rejection of the report.

Overall, the commission signed off on roughly 86 percent of what Rumsfeld recommended. That’s on par with previous years, when commissions changed only about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed.

After Congress receives the report from the president, lawmakers have 45 days to block it. The report will become law unless the House and the Senate pass a joint resolution objecting to it. That has never occurred in previous base-closing rounds.

The Pentagon has claimed its plan would save about $49 billion over 20 years, but the commission said in its final report that the Pentagon wrongly attributed most of the savings to the relocation of 26,830 military personnel to other facilities.

Agreeing with an earlier assessment by the Government Accountability Office, the commission said taxpayers would not see actual savings simply by moving personnel from one base to another. Those workers’ jobs would have to be eliminated for savings to be realized, it said.

If the personnel “savings” were not included, the commission said, the Pentagon plan would save only $19 billion.

While the Pentagon aimed to increase “jointness” among the service branches by streamlining operations and support across the Army, Navy and Air Force, “very few of the hundreds of proposals increased jointness, and some actually decreased or removed joint and cross-service connections,” the panel said in the report.

It said Rumsfeld’s recommendations “will not move the ball across the jointness goal line” but that the commission’s changes “will help move the ball down the field.”

The commission also said the completion of the upcoming report on national defense strategy, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, “may have better informed and assisted the commission in making its final decisions.” The panel suggested that future rounds of base closings should be done only after such major strategic reviews are finished.