WASHINGTON — Four of South Carolina's Republicans in Congress voted in favor of exploring a government shutdown of military bases, essentially putting the nation's purse strings above the state's heavy dependency on its pro-military economy.
While the effort failed, it did stake out a position of concern that South Carolina's bases may not be as secure if another base closing order comes down.
During debate Thursday on the annual National Defense Authorization Act, the full House of Representatives voted against an amendment to allow the military to pursue the first Base Realignment and Closure venture, or BRAC, since 2002.
The 175-248 vote had 140 Republicans and 108 Democrats joining in opposition.
South Carolina U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson, R-Lexington, and Jim Clyburn — the delegation's lone Democrat, voted against the amendment.
The remaining Republicans from the state's House contingent voted in favor, including: Reps. Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach, Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg, Ralph Norman of Rock Hill, and Jeff Duncan of Laurens.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Mount Pleasant, was not in Washington on Thursday because of his mother's funeral.
In all, the military has a nearly $16 billion economic impact each year in South Carolina, supporting more than 138,000 jobs, according to a recent state report.
Rice, Gowdy and Duncan supported the idea on grounds the proposal was just authorization of a study to conduct a BRAC, not a guarantee that any bases would close, let alone bases in their state.
"The amendment does not require base realignment, but merely gives the administration the flexibility to undertake such measures to ensure that our limited resources are applied to best defend our borders," Rice said in a statement.
"The Department of Defense should not be prohibited from evaluating the effectiveness of its military bases," said a spokeswoman for Gowdy.
"This amendment does not impose (BRAC) nor does it ensure a base closure in South Carolina," she added. "It merely allows DOD the opportunity to better manage our military bases to ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars."
A spokesman for Duncan said his vote represented support for the Defense Department's recommendation for a BRAC and that Duncan "believes that South Carolina's military installations stand on (their) own merits."
Republicans who supported the amendment in and outside the state also faced a lobbying effort from Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group that argues a BRAC could save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Wilson, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Post and Courier he disagreed with the premise that closing military bases would necessarily save that much money, saying more studies are needed to confirm the savings.
At the same time, he said he agreed with his colleagues that South Carolina's bases — Air Force, Navy, Marine and Army installations from Beaufort to Charleston, Sumter and Columbia — would be able to withstand a BRAC. His stressed opposition to instituting a new round of closures was based on overall concerns about the impact, not out of a desire to protect home state interests, he said.
Wilson also said he understood why people in Charleston would have anxiety about a BRAC since many have not forgotten the 1993 BRAC that resulted in the elimination of the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard despite promises from elected officials at the time it would be spared.
Had the amendment been adopted Thursday, it still would have needed a green light in the Senate — far from a sure bet — but U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wouldn't stand in opposition.
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham said Thursday he wasn't against the idea of a BRAC now that the President Donald Trump administration has committed to boosting military spending to the highest levels in recent history.
"I want to dramatically increase defense spending so we'll have more troops, more airplanes and more ships," Graham told The Post and Courier. "Doing a base closure would only make sense if you had a really inefficient base. So why not give the military the chance to restructure this new pot of money?"