DOVER, N.H. — Local experts say Portsmouth Naval Shipyard could again be threatened by closure, despite best efforts by legislators from New Hampshire and Maine to avoid two more rounds of Base Realignment and Closure in Washington.
On Feb. 15, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta urged Congress to undo an automatic $500 billion cut to defense spending scheduled to take effect next year, and also made his case for two new rounds of military base realignments and closures.
In order to close or consolidate military bases in the United States legislation from Congress is required to create a bipartisan Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which then studies the problem and makes recommendations to the president and the defense secretary.
The new requests would seek authorization for the first BRAC in 2013, to be followed by another in 2015. The two new rounds of closures are predicted to reap savings in five to eight years, but would cost money up front.
The most recent round of BRAC took place in 2005. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was among numerous bases considered for closure but was ultimately removed from the list. The 2005 BRAC was the largest ever with 190 closures and realignments. Those changes were just completed this past fall.
Also in 2005, the BRAC commission recommended the Pentagon begin its next round of base closures in 2015.
Panetta’s proposal is a $525.4 billion base budget plus $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations. The budget includes reductions upward of $487 billion in defense spending cuts over 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed last year.
The number is based on a cap on security spending, which is set at $686 billion for 2013. That money has to cover funding for the Defense Department as well as the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But the budget doesn’t account for more than $500 billion in additional cuts that will take effect early next year if Congress doesn’t act to stop it.
The additional cuts, called “sequestration,” were written into the Budget Control Act as automatic, across-the-board cuts to the federal budget if members of the congressional supercommittee did not agree on spending cuts by a November deadline of last year, which they didn’t.
Lawmakers have pushed back against the proposal of another BRAC, citing a U.S. Government Accountability Office report stating the most recent BRAC has reaped far less savings than initially predicted while the cost to close and consolidate bases has been greater.
“To date, the 2005 BRAC process has not delivered the savings it promised,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a email statement on Friday. “A 2010 GAO report found the costs associated with the previous round were 50 percent greater than DOD’s original estimate and it will not begin to reap savings until 2018. In addition, I am hesitant to accept the Department’s proposition that additional savings can be achieved through another round when DOD remains the only federal department that cannot provide audit-ready financial statements — much less financial statements that achieve a clean audit review. Until it is clear that the savings from the 2005 BRAC have fully materialized, DOD provides Congress its overdue clean financial audit, and DOD completes a review of overseas bases, it would be premature to consider a BRAC Round.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., echoed Collins’ sentiment.
“The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is a critical component of our nation’s security and its workers are the best in the nation at what they do. Right now we are in the middle of reviewing our entire military structure. Any decision on a new round of BRAC is premature until we’ve gone through that process. Going through the process right now doesn’t make sense.”
But options may be limited when it comes to finding savings within the Department of Defense’s budget.
And at a meeting with the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, stated the Department of Defense could use existing powers to close some installations, without the requirement of the BRAC process, which forces the Defense Department to assist communities affected by closings.
Dante Scala, professor of political science with the University of New Hampshire, said Congress could be faced with some difficult decisions in the not too distant future.
“Once the economy gets back on track, deficit reduction is a big issue that Congress will need to address,” he said. “Something’s got to give. One option is to let the Bush tax cuts expire or entitlement reform. So you have higher taxes, at least for some, entitlement reform, and if you’re not going to take that on defense is a big thing.”
And when it comes to defense spending, there are limits there as well.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, was part of the New Hampshire-Maine delegation during the 2005 BRAC. He said when it comes to defense spending cuts, the options are few.
“With the budget deal that was put together to authorize the debt extension and the automatic sequestration, that’s about $1.2 trillion and half of that, as I recall, is defense spending. Unless Congress comes in and changes that what you have with a military budget is payroll reduction, reductions in benefits, to say nothing of weapons systems and then a BRAC round.”
Bradley said the current group of representatives from New Hampshire and Maine may have a more difficult time keeping a BRAC from happening after the number of closures that took place following 2005. Fewer bases potentially means fewer Congress members with skin in the game.
“Looking at it, there were a lot of bases that were closed in the last BRAC round,” he said “For members of Congress that still have a base in their district there’s some trepidation. But every time you lose a base you potentially lose a supporter for preventing another BRAC. If I’m not representing one of those districts I’d only be looking at the overall picture. I think Portsmouth better be ready for another round of having to fight this.”
Bradley said the shipyard remains viable for closure because the Navy has continued to argue it can continue its level of service with three submarine yards rather than four.
Portsmouth is no stranger to the BRAC process.
It was the 1988 BRAC that brought Pease Air Force Base to its end. What followed was a deep economic recession for the region.
N.H. Department of Revenue and Economic Development Commissioner George Bald said comparing the closing of Pease to a potential loss of the shipyard is comparing apples to oranges.
When Pease closed the thousand of Air Force personnel continued to have jobs. They packed their bags and moved on to other assignments, in the process flooding an already weakened housing market with a glut of empty domiciles.
“For the city of Portsmouth, it decimated their school system,” said Bald. “There were a number of teachers that were laid off. They certainly had great difficulties. We look at Pease now and think, ‘this is great,’ but there was 10 years of pain before that.”
Bald said the closing of the shipyard would be even more devastating to the region, as those who work there also live throughout the region.
“If you close the Navy yard those people are all going to lose their jobs,” he said. “It would certainly put the pressure on the community to have that much revenue evaporate. Those people would still be in the community and still have great needs. It would be far more destructive [than Pease].”
When asked if the recent investment of $38 million in infrastructure improvements to the shipyard by the Navy takes Portsmouth Naval Shipyard out of the gunsights of a potential BRAC Bradley was matter of fact:
“Not at all,” he said.
A recent report by the Aurora Sentinel in Aurora, Colo., confirms Bradley’s statement.
The Aurora paper cited the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center had received millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements leading up to 1995, the year the hospital was closed by a BRAC.
When it comes to the BRAC process, Bradley said the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the New Hampshire-Maine delegation to prove the value of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to the committee.
“All the support, the people lining Route 1 when BRAC came here and the yellow T-shirt brigade that went to Boston, what it’s going to come down to is a hard analysis of the numbers,” he said. “Public support is nice, but it did not sway a single BRAC commissioner. The federal delegation has got to deliver. It’s not going to be public support. It’s not going to be about 5,000 jobs lost in Maine and New Hampshire. They’re looking at this on a national level. You’re going to have to show that you’re the most cost effective and that it’s vital to have four [submarine yards].”
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