Is Wright-Patt losing clout in D.C.?

Ohio’s entire congressional delegation will be called on to advocate for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Washington, D.C, as U.S. Sen. Rob Portman leaves a key military policy committee, experts say.

Portman’s absence leaves less clout for the state’s key driver of economic development and national security and comes at a time of impending spending reductions and the possibility of a future round of military closures.

The Dayton Development Coalition has reached out to each Ohio congressional member to advocate for the base’s interests and other key assets such as Springfield Air National Guard Base, said Michael Gessel, the Coalition’s vice president of federal government programs in Washington, D.C.

“It’s fairly certain that we will be facing budget cuts and we need to respond with a higher level of activity regardless of what happens with base closures,” he said.

Gessel argues there is still considerable clout left despite Portman leaving the Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees key defense legislation, and not having two Congressmen representing the base. The district held by U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, a strong past advocate of Wright-Patterson and prior member of the House military construction and veterans affairs subcommittee, was redistricted last year.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, now is the only representative whose district surrounds Wright-Patterson.

Turner said he will be “working to both advance and protect Wright-Patterson Air Force Base” and other Ohio installations, such as the Army’s tank plant in Lima and Army and National Guard bases throughout the state.

Turner was selected last month as chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, giving the congressman oversight of a large range of key weapon acquisition and research and development programs for the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

Wright-Patterson, home to the Air Force Materiel Command and Air Force Research Laboratory, has a major role in acquisitions and research and development within the Defense Department.

“Being the chairman of that subcommittee is a game changer,” Gessel said. “He will control much of the legislation that affects the Air Force.”

The chairmanship will put him in communication with the military’s top leaders and give Turner access to more congressional staff resources, Gessel added.

Claude Chafin, a House Armed Services Committee spokesman, said Turner’s appointment “easily compensated” for Portman’s departure from the Senate Armed Services Committee “especially given the fact that Mr. Turner is one of our most energetic and diligent” members.

For his part, Portman said he would continue his involvement in Wright-Patterson.

“I will really miss serving on the Armed Services Committee, but I will continue to be heavily involved in helping Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the contractor base in the Miami Valley, as well as other military facilities in Ohio,” he said in an email.

Ohio’s federal lawmakers have a bipartisan incentive to work together, said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

“Portman’s departure won’t help, but the entire Ohio delegation only has one big base to protect and that base is very well run so it should be pretty easy to get it the help it needs in Congress,” he said. “ … Protecting military bases is one of those issues that cuts across partisan lines and tends to draw strong support. It doesn’t matter when it comes to bases. Everybody wants to protect an economic generator like Wright-Patt.”

Thompson noted Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., whose district now includes Springfield Air National Guard Base, could give the region added heft for adjacent Wright-Patterson, too.

“Speaker Boehner went out of his way to protect a military engine program near Cincinnati even though that wasn’t in his district and I think the same would apply to Wright-Patterson,” Thompson said.

Still, the impact of automatic, across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, will be felt should it happen, he said, but the base should weather the possibility of a future round of base closures.

The Pentagon will begin nearly $500 billion in sequester cuts March 1 if Congress doesn’t reach a deal to avoid the reductions in addition to $487 billion in reductions scheduled over a decade.

“Sequestration has the potential to significantly cut funding for Wright-Patterson, but there is zero chance that base is going to close and it may even grow in the future,” he said.

The region doesn’t have a representative on an appropriations committee in the House or the Senate, but remains well positioned to deal with budget challenges, said former Republican U.S. Rep. David Hobson of Springfield.

Hobson said the base has strong community support, base proponents are well organized, and Turner’s new chairmanship all help make its case in Congress. Advocates noted the base fared well in the last round of base closures in 2005, gaining missions and jobs, such as the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.

The state will gain legislative influence with Portman and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, on the Senate Finance Committee, Hobson said.

Many of the more than 29,000 military and civilian employees assigned to the base live in adjacent communities where other federal lawmakers have taken notice, said Robert Hickey, a Wright State University vice president of public affairs who has been involved with community activities tied to the base.

“When you think of the huge number of people who work there, there are a large percentage who feel Wright-Patterson belongs to them,” Hickey said.

Lawrence J. Korb, a member of the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington, D.C., and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, contended congressional influence often has little influence to prevent budget cuts.

The Department of Defense baseline budget has more than doubled since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, and if sequestration happened this fiscal year, spending would be curtailed to 2007 levels, he said.

“The Pentagon has wasted tons of money in the last decade because the money has flowed so freely,” he said, noting the department spent $50 billion on weapons canceled since Sept. 11, 2001. “I’ve never seen it so poorly managed.”

He noted Wright-Patterson isn’t going to close if another round of base closures begins in the next few years.

“They are not going to close Wright-Patterson any more than if they wanted to close West Point,” he said. “This is a key Air Force facility.”

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