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Virginia officials make case for Gates to keep Joint Forces Command open

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; B03

Could 1,000 Defense Department civilians stand between Secretary Robert M. Gates and his plan to shut down the military's Joint Forces Command, based in the Hampton Roads section of Virginia?

Maybe so, says Sen. James Webb.

The Virginia Democrat comes to Pentagon issues from a place of some expertise, as a former Navy secretary, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a combat veteran. And he argues that "a strong legal case can be made that the base-closure statutes are applicable because this involves a reduction of more than 1,000 civilian personnel."

Webb points to a section of federal law that says military installations should not be closed until a certain process is completed, including a report to Congress that covers the "consequences of such closure or realignment."

The Pentagon, using lingo all its own, says Gates "has recommended the disestablishment of JFCOM," rather than closing or realigning it, so the federal statutes don't apply. The Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) has 2,800 military and civilian positions and 3,000 contractors.

Of course, making a strong legal case isn't necessarily the same thing as winning it. Even members of the Virginia congressional delegation, understandably protective as mama bears over military spending in their state, reluctantly acknowledge that Gates may be within his rights to close JFCOM.

"Even if it's not technically the letter of the law, the spirit of the law is clearly implicated" by the secretary's action, said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.).

Scott, Webb and other members of the Virginia congressional delegation -- Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Reps. Glenn Nye (D), J. Randy Forbes (R) and Rob Wittman (R) -- sent a letter to Gates on Friday expressing their "deep disappointment and concern" over his plan, saying it would result in "the dismissal of thousands of highly skilled civilians and defense contractors."

Following the procedures outlined in the base-closure law would delay his plans by only a few months, they said. In a nod to savvy Pentagon lawyers, the letter notes that Gates's "closure strategy appears to have been crafted to avoid the need to comply with . . . statutory requirements." Yet circumventing the law, they warned, would set an "unacceptable precedent."

Although lawmakers in Virginia's south are worried about JFCOM, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Northern Virginia Democrat, is concerned about the impact of other parts of what the Pentagon calls its "efficiencies initiatives" -- specifically, how they will affect contractors who make their living off Defense Department dollars.

Like other members of Congress, Connolly praises Gates for efforts to control the defense budget. But doing so at the expense of their constituents -- well, that's a different story. A proposal to cut contractor spending by 10 percent a year for three years is "arbitrary and capricious," Connolly said.

Gates acknowledged that "we weren't seeing the savings we had hoped" from a plan announced last year to cut 33,000 contractors over five years.

Connolly said "arbitrary cuts never produce the desired results and are frequently proven to be counterproductive. . . . I have questions about the justification for his plan."

Gates justified his proposals in a news briefing last week, saying that Defense Department offices "have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions" and were "over-reliant on contractors." Over the next two years, he wants to cut 150 senior civilian executive jobs.

Even his own office grew by nearly 1,000 employees during the last decade. The percentage of defense workforce costs going to contractors jumped from 26 percent to 39 percent during that period. While Gates plans to cut contractors, he said the Pentagon will no longer automatically replace them with full-time federal employees.

He may be able to accomplish that by cutting back on reports the Pentagon produces. "Consider that as of 2009, the department had nearly a thousand contractors working in some capacity producing reports for the Congress, of which more than 200 were working full time," Gates said.

To get a handle on that, he froze the number of DOD required reports and cut funding for adviser studies by 25 percent.

Although Gates upset the Virginia delegation with plans to control spending, if he can use savings to fund other military projects, the state could benefit.

"If, as a result of these efforts, I am able to add a billion or two billion dollars to the Navy's shipbuilding program of record," the secretary said, "Virginia may well come out with a lot more jobs than it loses."

The transcript of Gates's announcement and his news briefing is at this link: http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4669

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