If there is one thing that gives members of Congress more heartburn than raising their own salaries, it is having home-district military bases closed on their watch. In 1988, there were anguished cries when an 86-base hit list was issued by the Pentagon. Yet three years later, we find that only one installation has closed for good.
Last year Defense Secretary Dick Cheney came up with a new list of proposed base closings that deservedly got nowhere on Capitol Hill. Its impact was almost exclusively directed at Democratic-controlled congressional districts. "It stinks," House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin said of this exercise in pork-barrel punishment.
It seems that Mr. Cheney learned his lesson. His revised list of 31 major bases slated for closing in 20 states (not including Maryland) has been labeled "fair" by Mr. Aspin and "serious and credible" by the liberal House Democratic Study Group. Only lawmakers in targeted districts howled.
Ironically, the chairman of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which is to review the recommendations and then present an up-or-down package to President Bush and Congress, is James Courter, a former Republican congressman from New Jersey. In 1989, while fighting to keep Fort Dix open, Mr. Courter was the only member of the House Armed Services subcommittee to vote against base shutdowns.
This year, in his new position, Mr. Courter vowed his commission "will not play politics with America's national security." He promised "conscientious evaluation and absolute integrity."
Mr. Cheney has described his proposals in similar terms of political purity. "When I made the announcement. . . I did not know at the time which bases fell in which members' districts," he said. "I did not want to know." H-mmmm.
In any event, the defense secretary is on solid ground in seeking to chop the Pentagon's real estate holdings. At present there are 495 major military bases scattered around the United States. With the armed forces, now two million strong, slated for a 25 percent reduction during the next five years, the Pentagon, in Mr. Cheney's words, "hardly needs to spend money on bases that don't have personnel on them." We agree.
Logic and fiscal prudence require deep cuts in military bases. The new procedures are designed to ease community pain and shield individual legislators from home-district blame. Nevertheless, tough battles lie ahead that need to be won.