Recusals put legitimacy of BRAC process in doubt

Our nation’s military structure is about to undergo major realignments, some that are probably needed. However, some changes could weaken America’s ability to defend itself in the face of enemy attack.
Now, just a few months before that Base Realignment and Closure process is complete, we learn two of the most-important decision makers are said to have a conflict of interest that would prevent them from voting on the fate of Cannon Air Force Base and other places that we believe help America remain strong.
This legal decision telling BRAC commissioners they must recuse themselves is astoundingly shortsighted … and frightening.
In this instance, James Bilbray of Nevada and James Hansen of Utah have recused themselves from participating in Commission work involving their home states on advice of lawyers representing the Commission. The lawyers ruled that conflict exists if they vote on the fate of Cannon because some of its F-16s would be moved to Nevada and Utah bases.
This argument strikes any reasonable-thinking person as a bucket shot full of holes. It won’t hold water.
Of course commissioners might have potential conflicts. That is why there is a vetting process before appointments were made. Where they live isn’t a conflict of any kind. If that makes them guilty, shut down Congress, the White House and all the federal agencies, and do it now.
Using that same reasoning, how could any elected federal official ever cast a vote in Congress? How could the president sign a bill that might benefit his home state? How could a bureaucrat even offer opinions or make decisions on issues that impact their home states?
Many elected officials and BRAC commissioners also served in a branch of the armed forces. Should that also disqualify them from serving the country? No, it has not in more than two centuries, and it never should.
Politicians, military leaders and media began a healthy debate on potential commissioners’ qualifications more than a year ago. So why didn’t those most directly involved think these matters were a conflict of interest back then? The answer is simple: It was not a conflict then nor is it today.
Recusal on these grounds so late in the process — Commission recommendations must go to President Bush by Sept. 8 — endangers the validity of the entire BRAC process. This step is meant to be a review of Department of Defense recommendations to ensure they are done within the law, that the facts the military branches used to draw up the list were correct, that the reasoning behind military recommendations was correct. Recusal is a red herring that, if allowed, could turn review into rubber-stamping mockery of the law.
Five members of the BRAC Commission must vote to remove a base from the proposed closure list. Seven must vote to put a facility on the list. You whittle nine possible votes to seven, and the odds of changing wrong-headed decisions that could endanger the country become more astronomical.
Recusing two commissioners reduces the already-long odds of removing Cannon Air Force Base from the closure list by 22 percent.
New Mexico’s congressional delegation is asking the Commission to adopt new standards.
“One approach would be to change the rule that requires a vote of five of nine members to remove a base from the list, and replace it with a requirement of a simple majority of voting members,” New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman wrote in a joint press release that also included U.S. Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico. Such changes in previous BRAC rounds required only a simple majority.
A change in standards certainly seems appropriate if this recusal decision is not rejected by the BRAC commissioners.