Lessons On Regulatory Reform: The BRAC Acts

Overview of Regulatory Reform in the U.S. from The Base Realignment and Closure Act

The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Act of 1988 was created to close or realign excess military bases in order to save money. Since Department of Defense (DoD) spending can attract millions of dollars to a politician’s constituents every year, they will rarely vote to close unneeded bases. The BRAC Act worked around this problem by creating a commission of independent experts (the Base Realignment and Closure Commission) who, along with the DoD, would recommend base closures and realignments.

The DoD used military need as its primary criterion for deciding which bases should be realigned or closed. The BRAC commission then amended the DoD’s recommendations to ensure that they adhered to a set of criterion created by Congress and sent final recommendations to the president for approval or disapproval.

The president cannot make any changes to the recommendations and must either approve or disapprove of the entire set. If approved, the president sends the recommendations to Congress which then has 60 days to pass a resolution of disapproval. If Congress does not pass such a resolution, the BRAC commission’s recommendations automatically become final.

Results from the BRAC Act of 1988

After years without significant military base reform through the traditional legislative approach, the BRAC Act of 1988 resulted in the closure of 16 major U.S. military bases and the realignment of 11 others. This and subsequent BRACs have been estimated to save about $7 billion annually.

Overview of Regulatory Reform in the U.S. from The BRAC Act of 2005

In 2005, Congress enacted another BRAC program to cut at least $4.2 billion in annual military spending. With no clearly established goals other than “cut spending,” the DoD determined that the primary goal of this BRAC act should be to “transform the military.”

Results from the BRAC Act of 2005

As a result of ambiguity, this round of BRACs came with an upfront cost of over $35.1 billion. These costs won’t be recovered until 2018 and the Government Accountability Office doubts that the $4.2 billion annual savings goal will be met.

Lessons from the BRAC Acts

From a political standpoint, closing military bases is a lot like reforming regulations. Congressmen have an interest in fighting to keep military bases in their districts because it guarantees revenue for their constituents which, in turn, guarantees revenue for the congressman.

Similarly, congressmen have an interest in fighting for certain regulations that benefit a portion of their constituency because then this portion of their constituents will continue to fund their campaigns.

Thus, we can take lessons from the BRAC acts and apply them to regulation reform.

First, as with BRAC, regulatory reform should seek to establish an independent commission composed of regulatory experts with no political careers to protect. The independent aspect of this commission prevents politicians from tainting the commission’s findings and subsequent recommendations.

Second, clarity is crucial. In 1988, the goal was clear: reduce excess military bases. As a result, the goal was easy to meet. But in 2005, the goal was ambiguous and, as a result, the vague goal of reducing excess military spending was not met. When it comes to regulations, Congress must give regulatory reformers a clear and realistic goal.

A third lesson that we can take from BRAC comes from the success of the 1988 act. This act gave Congress a time limit of 60 days to disapprove of the BRAC committee’s recommendations – this has several advantages, one of which is pointed out by Phil Gramm:

[I]f you have a military base in your district…under this proposal, I have 60 days. So, I come up here and say, “… Don’t close this base in Texas. We can get attacked from the South…We need this base.” Then I can go out and lie in the street and the bulldozers are coming and I have a trusty aid there just as it gets there to drag me out of the way. All the people…will say, “You know, Phil Gramm got whipped, but it was like the Alamo. He was with us until the last second.”

Thus, members that would be affected by ending a certain regulation need take no action, and constituencies can see affected members as champions. A time limit allows congressmen to pass regulatory reform without criticism from their constituents that would usually prevent such reform.

In sum, we take the lesson from BRAC that an independent commission with clear goals can greatly aid the regulatory reform process. Furthermore, requiring a resolution disapproving of the commission’s recommendations with a time limit can make regulatory reform more palatable to politicians. It is important to incorporate these three lessons as we seek to improve our regulatory state.

To see the previous post in this series on regulatory reform, please read Lessons on Regulatory Reform: How the U.S. Could Save $450 billion Per Year.

Form more on the BRAC Act as it pertains to regulations, please see “A Process for Cleaning Up Federal Regulations” by Joshua Hall and Michael Williams from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.