Home Opinion How One Member of Congress Can Block Legislation

How One Member of Congress Can Block Legislation


By Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University

In Congress, one member can keep any piece of legislation from being voted on or even force a federal government shutdown. In October 2013, for example, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) led the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party to force a partial government shutdown for more than two weeks over ending funding for the Affordable Care Act.

Cruz’s effort failed and 850,000 government employees did not work during the 16-day shutdown. They did, however, receive about $2 billion in back pay later.

Recently, we watched Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) lead the Democrats to briefly shut down the government on the weekend of January 20-23. He sought an immigration policy to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). That effort also failed.

Proposed Legislation for Military Base Closures and Realignments

A similar situation exists regarding the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) round proposed by the Department of Defense (DoD) for many years now. The DoD needs to downsize its current infrastructure, so another BRAC round is needed. The latest proposed BRAC round would begin in April 2021.

The overall purpose of each round is to cut DoD infrastructure by 25 percent. That has never happened.

The Secretary of Defense, retired Marine General Jim Mattis, concluded a review of the DoD infrastructure and determined there is a 19 percent overall excess capacity. Specifically, the Army has 33 percent more stateside infrastructure than it needs and the Air Force has an excess of 32 percent. The Navy and Marine Corps each have a 7 percent excess.

Republicans Want to Increase Defense Budget through BRAC Cost Savings

Currently, President Trump and the Republican-led Congress are very interested in increasing the DoD budget. Members from both chambers of Congress and both political parties note that closing and consolidating military installations through another BRAC round at this time would save at least $2 billion every year. Other lawmakers counter this argument by noting that it would cost billions of dollars to implement BRAC recommendations to realign and close bases.

BRAC Did Not Deliver on Promised Savings in 2005

Many members of Congress recall that the last BRAC round in 2005 did not do what the DoD had promised. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed it would be the “mother of all BRACs,” closing more bases and saving more money than any of the previous four BRAC rounds.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. In the 2005 BRAC, there were far more realignments than base closures and the savings were less than projected.

In reflection, Jamie Morin, then-DoD Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, stated that “the Department is not happy with what happened in the 2005 BRAC round in terms of cost take-out.”

Overall, the five rounds of BRAC resulted in a savings of as much as $7 billion every year.

Key Members of Congress Attempt Legislation for Another BRAC Round

Key members of both parties support another BRAC round. For example, in the House of Representatives, Budget Committee member Tom McClintock (R-CA) offered an amendment to authorize another BRAC round to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. But it was defeated.

Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, proposed a BRAC round for 2019 that would add one step to the process. Congress would be given an opportunity to stop a BRAC round if it disagreed with the DoD’s assessment of how much infrastructure it needed going forward. Smith’s proposal also failed.

John McCain (R-AZ), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Congress showed “cowardice” for not supporting another BRAC round.

The ranking member of this committee, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), also supports another BRAC round.

Just Two Key Senators Blocking BRAC Due to Personal Politics

With all of this key bipartisan support for another BRAC round, why isn’t it happening? It’s because there is one senator from each party in a key position to keep any BRAC bill from receiving a floor vote.

A BRAC bill cannot be enacted without a vote in the Senate. Currently, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee is Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Inhofe’s public position is that another BRAC round would be prohibitively expensive and now is not the time.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), the ranking member on this subcommittee, concurs. Kaine suggested that the Pentagon place potential base closures directly in lawmakers’ hands.

His proposal is a non-starter because the current BRAC process was designed to be non-political. Placing a BRAC list for members of Congress to consider would be totally political and would likely result in no closures or realignments.

The concern that members of Congress have of losing a base in their state or district is the primary reason why Inhofe is reluctant to support another BRAC round. Inhofe has five potential military bases in Oklahoma that would be at risk.

Inhofe is the primary cog in the process to get another BRAC round authorized. However, he also denies global warming and supports constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriages and make English the national language. Those stands put him at odds with numerous fellow senators, including some Republicans.

Another BRAC Round Needed to Balance Military Efficiency and Force with DoD Infrastructure

More BRAC rounds are needed to balance the projected force levels with DoD infrastructure. As the threats to our nation change, DoD infrastructure needs to change to accommodate those threats (see the Obama administration’s 2012 “Pivot to East Asia” regional strategy). The next congressional law authorizing BRAC should also include language that makes another BRAC round automatic every five years.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He retired as a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force after 30 years of service. In 2009, he published a book on BRAC called “Military Base Closures: Past, Present, and Future.”