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

Virginia Sen. James Webb and other officials worry about JFCOM jobs that would be lost.
Virginia Sen. James Webb and other officials worry about JFCOM jobs that would be lost. (Koji Sasahara - AP)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

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.

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