Potomac News Online | Bracing for BRAC


WASHINGTON – States and communities paid lobbyists more than $10 million over the last three years to defend hometown military bases from the Pentagon ax in the coming round of base closures.

The unprecedented spending is one sign of the fear and anxiety gripping communities that depend on military installations for jobs and economic well-being.

One in four stateside bases could be affected by the base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC, officials said.

“No elected official wants to be accused of not doing everything possible to keep a base open,” said Christopher Hellman, who follows base closures for a Washington think tank.

In mid-May, the Pentagon will recommend closing some bases and moving units. A nine-member commission, nominated last week (March 15), will make the final selection in September.

While no exact figures on lobbying are available from previous base closings during the late 1980s and early 1990s, military analysts say spending on lobbyists and consultants is up because many communities near bases are more scared that the Pentagon will close their installations.

The military is the largest federal employer and often the largest single employer in scores of towns and small cities. Dothan, Ala., Columbus, Ga., and Fayetteville, N.C., rely on neighboring bases.

Altogether, military payrolls contribute more than $90 billion annually to local economies in the 50 states.

For the first time, state governments have joined the fight in a big way.

“All governors have this on their agendas,” said Tara Butler, a BRAC expert with the National Governors Association.

Worried state and local leaders have signed up dozens of firms to represent their interests in Washington.

“It’s a self-preservation measure,” said North Carolina Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue. “You need someone who knows Washington, the Pentagon. It’s a defensive play.”

The hired guns – political insiders, retired admirals and generals and former Defense bureaucrats – analyze local bases’ strengths and weaknesses, open doors to Pentagon officials and cook up strategies for “stealing” military units from other installations.

While critics question the effectiveness of lobbyists in a process tailored to reduce presidential and congressional influence, lobbyists have had some successes.

In 1991, when the military wanted to shut down Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle, area leaders and their consultant, a retired admiral, convinced the BRAC commission to save the base by arguing the Pentagon information was wrong, said Paul Hirsch, a senior staffer for the 1991 commission.

That success and other “saves” during later base-closing rounds resulted from a combination of bad decisions by the military, good presentations by the community and solid backing of a state’s senators and congressmen, said Hirsch, now president of Madison Government Affairs, a Washington lobbying firm.

“I don’t think there’s any consultant who would honestly say they did it alone,” Hirsch added. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.'”

An examination of congressional lobbying records by Media General News Service shows payments of more than $10 million to BRAC lobbyists since 2002. Much of the money came from taxpayers, either paid directly by state or local governments or funded by state grants to local towns and community groups.

The records underreport lobbyist payments, however, because some firms did not report money paid for educational efforts, studies and consulting. State and local officials, according to news reports, have announced several million dollars in BRAC contracts that do not require disclosure reports.

A Media General examination of lobbyist filings to Congress for the past three years shows 40 firms represented one or more clients on BRAC-related issues. Some are large Washington powerhouses or specialists focusing on defense issues.

The Rhoads Group collected the most of any Washington lobbying firm in BRAC business — $1.5 million from eight BRAC clients between 2002 and June 2004. The firm, headed by Barry Rhoads, a 1991 BRAC commission staff member, has clients in South Carolina, Mississippi, Ohio and elsewhere.

One high-priced newcomer lobbyist is retired Adm. Robert Natter, former commander of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. Natter has only client is Florida and the state paid him $510,000 last year.

“There’s not a general or admiral, captain or colonel who doesn’t have to earn a living when they retire,” he said, adding that his fees pay for staff, office space and travel to Washington from his Jacksonville office.

Lobbying began in earnest in late 2001 after Congress authorized a BRAC round for 2005, said Lilly Goren, a professor at Lake Forest College who wrote “Politics of Military Base Closings: Not in My District.”

“The communities that were potential targets got motivated. They started getting the experts lined up,” she added. “It’s an attempt to make sure (the communities) make their case.”

Hiring a lobbyist is understandable, said lobbyist Gregory Sharp.

“If you’re a community and thought you were on the bubble, it’s an investment to protect what you have,” said Sharp, president of the Spectrum Group, an Alexandria, Va., firm. “I think it’s a wise investment,” he added.

Others question whether the expensive lobbying is worth it.

“They have a minimal chance of success,” said Ken Beeks, policy vice president of Business Executives for National Security in Washington. “Money that’s intended to influence the (BRAC) commission process is wasted money.”

Beeks, whose think tank staunchly supports BRAC, said most lobbyists have oversold their services and abilities to “BRAC-proof” bases.

Once a base is placed on the closure list, he said, it has only about a 10 percent chance of avoiding closure.

Even losing an installation is no guarantee of economic ruin. A Government Accountability Office study found unemployment rates in the majority of communities with closed bases less than the national average.

Closing a base also gives lobbyists and consultants another dip at the well because many offer redevelopment assistance.

“I’m really suspicious of these guys,” said Hellman, a military analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “(BRAC) was designed and tweaked to keep politics out of it.”

“Lobbying Sen. John Warner or some other influential congressman – it’s questionable if it will have an impact,” Hellman added, referring to the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Service Committee.

Retired generals are just hiring out their Pentagon connections, Beeks charged.

“You’ll get a snappy PowerPoint (slideshow), a few letters with a star and a ‘Ret.’ behind the name. And, you’ll get your letter read (at the Pentagon),” he said. However, Beeks doubts that would make much difference when nearly every community does the same thing.

Two influential critics of BRAC lobbying have been the Pentagon officials overseeing the base closing process. The civilians, installations chief Philip Grone and his predecessor Raymond DuBois, both refuse to meet lobbyists, but they’ve become tour stops for state and local people espousing their communities’ merits.

A base’s military value, not its political ties, will gauge an installation’s prospects, BRAC observers said. Moreover, the military looks for hard information, not emotions, to support base closure decisions.

Hirsch said, “(Lobbying) is not a silver bullet because the facts are the facts.”

At least 10 states have used tax dollars to hire BRAC lobbyists and several others have given money to local groups that used the money for lobbying, Media General has found.

Former Virginia Rep. Owen Pickett, co-chair of the Virginia Commission on Military Bases, defended lobbyists.

“They’ve been helpful to the staff with information and insight into how things are being handled in Washington,” he said.

In addition to hiring lobbyists, state legislators try to make states more military friendly by changing zoning laws to discourage construction near bases, granting in-state tuition to troops and their families and easing the transfer of school credits from other states, among other measures.

“We’ve tried to strengthen the quality of life for military families,” said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.

Some states, including Florida and Texas, have set up programs to bolster local military bases, paying for road, rail and utility improvements. Texas legislators approved a $250 million loan package for cities near military bases to “enhance the military value of military installations.”

While states are taking a more active role, many communities have been preparing for BRAC for years.

Havelock, N.C., exists for one purpose – Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

The community has grown to 22,500 residents since the Marines arrived 64 years ago. Today, the air base is headquarters for the 2nd Marine Air Wing and home of Harrier jump jet and Prowler radar-jamming squadrons. More than 7,500 Marines and 1,000 civilians work there.

The base also houses Naval Aviation Depot Cherry Point. Its 4,200 civilian employees repair Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force helos damaged or worn out by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The depot workers’ average annual salary is $50,000, and the repair base is the largest employer in eastern North Carolina. Together, the air base and depot are a $1.1 billion economic engine for surrounding counties.

Former Havelock mayor Jimmy Sanders wants to keep that engine chugging along.

“Are we dependent on Cherry Point? Well, let’s go back and remember there were just 100 people living here before the base came,” Sanders said. “Life as we know it would disappear if we lost either one.”

Sanders, a retired depot employee, heads Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow, a group organized in 1993 when sister depots in Norfolk, Va., Pensacola, Fla., and Alameda, Calif., were closed by BRAC. Some of the closed depots’ work shifted to Cherry Point and the BRAC commission ordered Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighters to Cherry Point from Jacksonville, Fla.

“The BRAC giveth, but we didn’t know BRAC could taketh away,” said Sanders.

The latter happened in 1995, when BRAC diverted the Hornets to Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va., before any had landed at Cherry Point.

When the Pentagon announced a new BRAC round for 2005, the Cherry Point group re-energized and hired its own lobbyist – Hugh Overholt.

“Hugh provides the one voice. Everyone knows that when Hugh speaks, he speaks for all four communities about Cherry Point,” Sanders said.

Overholt, who works in nearby New Bern, eschews the lobbyist label despite registering as one.

“Most (local groups) want to get on a plane and fly to Washington and go to the Pentagon,” he said. “We do things differently.

“Our theme is to bring people here and put them on the base, so they can see it for themselves.” With help from congressmen and state officials, the local group has hosted visits by military installations chief Grone and other top defense officials.

Sanders said hiring a lobbyist protects Cherry Point from politics.

If base closures are to be decided solely on a base’s military values, backed up by facts and with no political bias, then Cherry Point will be safe from BRAC, he said.

But, with his next breath, Sanders asserted, “In government, there’s nothing that’s not political.”

“And, this time, there is no Jesse Helms” – the retired senator many North Carolinians credit with saving state bases from earlier BRACs, he said. “We don’t have a John Warner or a brother in the White House,” referring to Virginia and Florida, respectively.

“That’s why we have to work as hard as we can and make sure this BRAC is objective,” Sanders added.

“We’re the David and there’s a lot of Goliaths out there,” he said.

“We’re not trying to slay a Goliath; we just want people to know we can do (the job) better.”

James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service. His email is [email protected].

Similar Posts