Walter Reed woes spur new scrutiny for base-closing plan

The recent move by a powerful House panel to reverse a decision to close Walter Reed Army Medical Center may open a political can of worms, inviting lawmakers to fight to save other military installations from being closed, too.

The House Appropriations Committee voted unanimously last week to keep Walter Reed open, effectively removing it from the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005 by taking away the funding required to shutter the hospital in 2011. The BRAC, as it is known, was an independent process completed two years ago that mandated that the hospital and more than 180 other military installations be closed, saving $36 billion over 20 years.

The Appropriations Committee took the rare action to keep the hospital open in the wake of the scandal that surfaced there last month, when shoddy care and poor living conditions were made public by a report in The Washington Post. But the move to fix Walter Reed rather than close it may create an environment of me-tooism among lawmakers who will see the Walter Reed reversal as a political opportunity.

"I think potentially it's a very serious precedent," says Christopher Hellman, a former congressional staffer who worked closely on the BRAC process at the time. The commission that worked on the BRAC was structured in such a way so as to keep "congressional meddling" at a minimum, says Mr. Hellman. "While members all agree that BRAC is a good idea, they don't want to see the bases in their districts touched."

In May, various committees on Capitol Hill will begin marking up authorization bills – an optimal time for members to begin requesting studies for bases scheduled to be closed, Hellman says.

Some installations were removed from the BRAC list before it was ratified by Congress. Others were contested yet remained on the closure list. Lawmakers representing districts in which some of those bases, such as Fort McPherson, Ga.; Fort Monmouth, N.J.; and Fort Monroe, Va.; could step up the pressure to reconsider those bases.

Some lawmakers, like Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia, will argue that while many of the BRAC decisions were sound, some were not.

Representative Moran will fight the decision made by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as part of BRAC that forces Defense Department personnel working in leased office space in the Washington, D.C., area to move to nearby military installations. Moran argues that the decision means more than 9,000 personnel will have to leave transit-friendly office space in his congressional district to far-flung areas that are now clogged with traffic. Although most personnel are moving to areas that are still in his district, it's the kind of tinkering that could help to unravel the entire BRAC process.

"[Secretary] Rumsfeld required that any personnel in leased office space move, which was a dumb decision and one that should be reversed," Moran says.

Most lawmakers are comfortable with the BRAC decisions, but if making changes to BRAC means undoing it, sobeit, Moran says.

Officials, like Hellman, who are familar with BRAC, say it could be argued that Walter Reed represents a unique case and therefore should be the only one to be "un-BRACed."

When BRAC was completed in 2005, the thinking under Rumsfeld was to move to a lighter, smaller force, and that the size of the Defense Department was a relic of the cold war, when big armies ruled. The Army alone was to shrink by as many as 30,000 soldiers. That was then. Now, with thousands of marines and soldiers facing repeat deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan and the sense that the "long war" won't end anytime soon, the military is expanding dramatically. Both the Army and Marine Corps are growing by more than 60,000 people total over the next five years.

That means that the decisions to close some installations were made under a different set of assumptions, says Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, a military advocacy group in Alexandria, Va. "To us, it only makes sense to say, 'Is that still the right plan?' "

Letting Congress review the BRAC would not be a good thing, says Joyce Raezer, chief operating officer of the National Military Family Association, another advocacy group in Alexandria. The group understands the motivation to keep Walter Reed open, she adds. "However, we would hate, as a result of this action, to have the floodgates open and see members seeking reversals of other BRAC decisions and debating BRAC instead of focusing on the many pressing issues our military families face," she says.

Mr. Strobridge's group isn't necessarily advocating revisiting each decision made under BRAC, though the group does take a strong position on Walter Reed. The hospital should only be closed if adequate medical facilities are up and running and ready to absorb all of its patients. But since the overall process that helped to determine the hospital's fate was based on old information, maybe Walter Reed and other installations due to be closed under BRAC should get another look, he says.

"It at least needs to be relooked at, if you're going to make that dramatic a change in the force size," he says. "That's a pretty big swing."

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