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Saving the 911th Airlift Wing

Floor Speech

Location: Unknown

Mr. MURPHY of Pennsylvania. Speaking of saving money, here is an interesting story.

Just 2 weeks after Texans in Randall County voted for Republican Barry Goldwater over their native son, Lyndon Johnson, in the Presidential race in the 1960s, the Pentagon announced Randall County's Air Force base was closing. Folks were ``flabbergasted'' said an Amarillo newspaper columnist. The Air Force had just made millions in investments at the base, but now airmen and equipment were moving to a nearby county that supported Johnson.

It was this kind of abuse of executive power that led Congress to write a new law ensuring we had proper oversight over base closures. In my Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, we're finding out why that law must be strengthened. Last week, I learned the Air Force is again attempting to shut down the 911th Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve base, for a reason that has nothing do with cost or military strategy. In fact, the 911th is one of the most lean and cost-effective bases in the country.

How and why they can do this without congressional approval is interesting. The Air Force claims inaccurately there are fewer than 300 civilian employees authorized to be employed at the 911th, allowing the Pentagon to close the base without congressional review. The Pentagon, however, has invested over $50 million in improvements in the base, including new buildings in the last 5 years. The 911th, however, has lower overhead costs because emergency responses like fire and safety, air traffic control, security, runway maintenance, and land are provided by Pittsburgh International Airport for free. Hence, if the 911th were forced to in-source those activities, the number of authorized personnel would be hundreds more, and would far exceed the 300-person threshold. Thus, the Pentagon would be prevented from unilaterally closing it. Further, the Air Force Reserve would have to invest millions more in equipment and training if it was not provided for free, but the Air Force did not look at any of these numbers, and they did not review the cost of the space.

The Pentagon is trying to close the base because they can, not because they should. In their haste to come up with a quick cut, it will cost the taxpayers over $100 million in coming years, and that is why Congress needs to have oversight.

The House has passed a defense bill to prevent a suboptimal decision like this one in the future. The House bill includes language requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress about any base closure or transfer of troops impacting more than 1,000 uniform personnel. Unlike the way the Air Force is operating now, the Defense Department would have to include a justification for the reduction, an evaluation of the costs and benefits, and an evaluation of the local, economic, environmental, strategic, and operational consequences. By requiring significant reductions in uniform personnel to be included in the budget request, Congress will have two opportunities to review, block, or approve a base closure in the annual defense authorization bill and the defense appropriations bill.

The Senate is nearing completion of its version of the defense bill today, and it's my hope that both Chambers will work to restore Congress' proper oversight authority. The issue facing Congress is not a new one. Since the 1960s, the executive branch has tried repeatedly to close bases for reasons other than the best interests of taxpayers or the military. The necessity of a strong base closure law giving Congress oversight of these decisions was perhaps best expressed in 1985 by Senator Carl Levin. He said:

These protections against untrammeled executive power to close bases came because Members of this Senate and this Congress felt that the power to close bases had been abused and had been used as a club over Members of Congress.

Today, it is the 911th, but tomorrow it could be a base in any Member's district. I urge my colleagues to support efforts to strengthen the base closure law.

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