A Major Pain in the BRAC

Columnist : Albert Paschall

I’ve had this loyal reader for years. Somedays she compliments my work but more importantly she keeps me on top of things. Last week she asked about the military base closings in Pennsylvania. I had paid no attention to them. I promised to look into the matter. I had no clue that the project would turn into such a complicated, major pain in the BRAC.

BRAC is the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closures Commission. Created back in the 1980’s it is supposed to be a completely apolitical committee that determines which military bases get closed across the country. Last week it walloped Pennsylvania. The recommendations for base closings will cost about 3500 military and civilian jobs in the western part of the state and phase out the sprawling Willow Grove Naval Air Station just outside of Philadelphia in Montgomery County.

From the Montgomery County Court House all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Willow Grove could be the Republican Party’s biggest headache.

While most of the base closings in the Commonwealth are just consolidations of reserve centers, Willow Grove is home to about 400 on-base military and civilian jobs that support training of an estimated 9,000 reservists a year. While 9,000 reservists spend a lot of money at local businesses the air station’s 1200 acres are the real political agony.

Montgomery has the largest proportion of retail stores to its population of any county in the nation. The area around Willow Grove is dominated by shopping malls, giant box stores and huge cineplexes. An explosion of land development in the last 3 decades drove county voters last year to overwhelmingly approve a $250 million open space preservation budget. Montgomery is also the state’s wealthiest county and housing values are soaring. Developers will beg to get their hands on this centrally located acreage. If built out to capacity it could have as many as 10,000 townhouses or the equivalent of 20 shopping malls. Local government’s pain would become unbearable as the county planning commission and various zoning boards moved their hearings to stadiums packed with anti-sprawl protesters. But with a recent illogical Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that governs large parcels in commercial districts any government would be hard pressed to stop the bulldozers.

But BRAC is a tough pain to cure. It’s a complicated, bureaucratic, process that surprisingly has stayed largely immune to political pressure. This commission’s credentials are solid. Its recommendations have been jointly endorsed by the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While Rumsfeld has clashed with the military on other strategic matters it seems that on this round of base closings the administration and the military are marching in lock step.

The strange thing about phasing out Willow Grove is that it seems to fit the plan that Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs say they are trying to implement. It’s one of the few joint command bases on the continent meaning that it’s used by all branches of the military. It is strategically located in the mid-Atlantic coastal corridor. The region that military planners claim is the favorite target of every terrorist nut group on the planet. Its physical plant and equipment are generally in good condition.

Right now there is only one important, tight race in Pennsylvania: Santorum versus Casey for the US Senate. It’s a priority on the highest levels of both parties. Rick Santorum has had a remarkable career. He’s the third highest ranking Republican in the Senate. To achieve the same seniority his Democratic counterpart Senator Edward Kennedy has served in the Senate since Santorum was 9 years old. Many believe that someday he could be President of the United States. But Willow Grove will be a major pain in his BRAC next year. He needs to run well in suburban Philadelphia to offset Casey’s strength in northeastern Pennsylvania. How Santorum manages Willow Grove’s fate could decide his own.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

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