WASHINGTON – The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure plan was signed into law two years ago this month, launching a sweeping series of changes nationwide that is expected to bring 45,000 to 60,000 new jobs to Maryland.
And while Maryland has been crowing about and planning for the big staff-up, the folks near Fort Monmouth, N.J., aren’t smiling.
More than two years after President Bush signed the fort’s death warrant, officials and workers in New Jersey refuse to say the fight to stop the move of thousands of jobs from the Garden State to Aberdeen Proving Ground is over.
Sometime in December, the battle is expected to move back to Capitol Hill, where the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee plans to hold a hearing on how base realignment decisions were made. No date has been announced, and experts say the effort is doomed from the start.
Though the hearing is expected to look at all BRAC decisions, it’s an opportunity for opponents of the move to Aberdeen to air criticism and seek accountability they say the Department of Defense has shirked.
“When the decisions were made, Aberdeen said ‘We won!'” said John Poitras, president of the Fort Monmouth workers’ union. “But nobody has won anything.
“Somebody tell me how they’re going to do it better down there (at Aberdeen) when there is all kinds of experience lost from people here who won’t move and the costs of BRAC have gone through the roof,” he said.
The 2005 plan called for closing dozens of military installations across the country while expanding others to save money and streamline the military. With the loss of Fort Monmouth, central New Jersey was arguably the biggest BRAC loser in the country, with 5,000 jobs either eliminated or shuttled elsewhere.
Poitras and other opponents of the move say it’s clear that if the point of base realignment was to save money, it missed the mark. They point to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last month that said the $1 billion savings the Department of Defense estimated for BRAC was grossly off the mark.
The problem: DOD officials based their estimates on eliminating duplication of inventory that did exist, the report said. Without it, the cost savings for BRAC nationwide dropped from $1 billion to $30 million, a 97 percent decrease.
It is that trend that helped spawn the oversight hearing. In an October letter to the New Jersey congressional delegation, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said he shared “concerns about apparent cost escalations and reduction in savings that are being reported by the Department of Defense.”
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and a member of the Armed Services Committee, is “thankful” Skelton called the hearing and is investigating BRAC decisions, said Lisa Wright, a Bartlett spokeswoman. But she stressed the Fort Monmouth decision is just one of many likely to be discussed.
“This will be a hearing about the entire BRAC process, not just that one decision,” she said.
The hearing does have significant Maryland and New Jersey angles, though. For example, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., serve on the readiness subcommittee that will conduct the hearing. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
The Armed Services Committee also includes Bartlett and Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. In addition, Rep Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said last month in a New Jersey newspaper that he expects he and Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., will participate in the panel asking questions.
“This report is another plank we can use,” Pallone told the Asbury (N.J.) Park Press. “We have so much — it’s more than enough information to be able to present the case for Fort Monmouth.”
He did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
As rhetoric about Fort Monmouth and Aberdeen continues to escalate in New Jersey, though, independent BRAC experts and consultants say it is highly unlikely Congress will overturn the decision.
Frank Cirillo, the director of review and analysis in the 2005 BRAC process, said base realignment was “always meant to be an all-or-nothing thing,” with Congress approving or rejecting a bill that endorsed an independent nine-person commission’s recommendations.
“It would upset the apple cart” if things didn’t work that way, he said.
Paul Hirsch, a BRAC consultant and president of Madison Government Affairs Inc. in Washington, went a step further, saying it would be near impossible to overturn BRAC law since it would require more legislation.
“Regardless of merit, I think it’s going to be very difficult to overturn the decisions,” said Hirsch. Doing so would “open up the proverbial Pandora’s Box in other communities and with other members of Congress because they’ll want to overturn decisions involving their community’s military bases,” he said.
That frustrates at least one BRAC commissioner, Philip E. Coyle III. A senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, Coyle said the commission may not have voted for the BRAC recommendations had its members known then what they do now about the Department of Defense cost analysis.
Coyle, former director of weapons testing at the Pentagon, proposed a resolution to remove Fort Monmouth from the BRAC list before the recommendations went to Congress, but was outvoted by the rest of the commission, 6-2.
“It was really bum dope,” Coyle said of DOD’s cost analysis. The commission “saw cost proposals that didn’t make sense, and we couldn’t get to the bottom of them,” he said.
Chris Isleib, a Department of Defense spokesman, said Tuesday that senior officials were not available for questions on the decisions.
In the past, both the Department of Defense and the Maryland congressional delegation have said base realignment has a history of streamlining the military, cutting costs and improving national security.
That’s little consolation to people in places like Eatontown, N.J., a community of 14,000 that is home to part of Fort Monmouth.
Gerald J. Tarantolo, Eatontown mayor, said he realizes it would be “virtually impossible” to overturn the Monmouth decision at this point, so he is watching how the hearing goes while simultaneously planning for Fort Monmouth’s closure.
“We’re kind of looking at two things: We’re supporting the fact that we want to revisit the issue (at the hearing), and we’re looking at how to plan for life without Fort Monmouth,” he said. “If we could make all that go away, I couldn’t be happier.”