Base-closing plan shows the way

Jim Fain

April 17, 1991|By Jim Fain

WASHINGTON — DEFENSE Secretary Dick Cheney's proposal for closing 43 military bases and slimming down another 28 actually has a better-than-even chance.

If this political miracle comes to pass, it will mark the second time since George Washington's farewell that the Pentagon pork barrel has been attacked with logic rather than the calculus of patronage. It also will stand as a tribute to a much-maligned institution the U.S. Congress.

In 1988, worn down by the usual partisan logrolling, Congress created a bipartisan commission to bring in a package of closings to be voted up or down without change. In the battle fatigue of the moment, this hit list quickly passed. We currently are closing or shrinking 86 bases as a result.

Last year, by contrast, Cheney went back to politics as usual. He sent the Hill a list of 55 proposed closings, almost all either located in or drawing most of their employees from Democratic districts. Then he sat back to enjoy the blood sport.

Congress boredly waved him off as merely frivolous and took no action. But Chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis., of the House Armed Services Committee and a few other heroes realized the tough pruning needed for a bloated defense establishment never could be achieved without changing the process.

Why not refine the 1988 expedient and make it a permanent mechanism, they wondered. As a result, Congress enacted almost unnoticed a base-closure act that amputated 98 percent of the politics from this traditional grab-bag.

Under the new rules, the defense secretary is required to submit a list to an ongoing bipartisan commission that holds hearings and is authorized to make changes.

Within 45 days, it must send its final version to the president, who can either send it back with suggestions for change or send it on to Congress. He cannot tinker with it on his own.

Once Congress gets the package, it can vote it up or down but not alter it in any way. This all-or-nothing aspect ends any possibility of the vote bargaining that made the old process such a disgusting exercise in public trough-feeding.

The new procedure already has had a therapeutic effect. Cheney's proposals this time were the first objective ones to come out of the Pentagon in modern history. Political gamesmanship traditionally had begun there, with each new secretary playing to a constituency in Congress, both to woo votes and punish enemies. The resultant waste was criminal.

With the process sanitized, there's no longer a payoff for that kind of thing.

We're not yet out of the woods. Congressmen whose districts and states are affected this time will put up a battle. There are plenty of votes from unaffected states to push the plan through, however, if members of both parties resist the temptation to barter their votes for favors on other matters.

We have been mired in a morass of defense pork-barreling since World War II, far more in expensive weapons systems than in bases. Billions have gone down the tube as a result.

Now that we're finally able to trim the armed forces, why not go on and get rid of the other fat? The base-closure mechanism is a splendid model. The next step is to find ways of adapting it to arms procurement across the board.

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