WASHINGTON — IT'S COMMONLY said around here that any time the White House or Congress wants to avoid a tough decision, one or the other appoints a commission. It's often a convenient way topush an issue off the front burner and study it to death.
Occasionally,-tasting but effective medicine that both parties and the White House eventually swallowed. The dose gave the system a boost and proved not to be politically fatal to anybody, which was the idea.
A more difficult test has been presented by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission established to diminish, but not remove altogether, the political heat on members of Congress on the sticky matter of shutting down military installations around the country. An acceptable economy move is likely to be defined by a House or Senate member as closing down a base in somebody else's district or state, and that's why some of the good legislators are doing fair imitations of stuck pigs over the commission's decisions.
Some 35 military installations are to be closed down, a paring down from a list of 43 that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney fingered for the commission's consideration, and another 42 reduced in mission and personnel. President Bush has two weeks to accept the list or buck it back to the commission for revision. After another four weeks, if the president then approves, it goes to Congress, which must reject it within 45 legislative days or the closings take place.
The procedure requires Congress to swallow all of the base shutdowns or none, which means that if any unhappy congressmen or senators want to charge to the rescue of doomed installations in their districts or states, they must make their case to the White House, which is likely to think twice before shedding the protection that the commission has given it on this dicey matter.
For a country that has been celebrating the end of the Cold War, the whittling down of the defense establishment that these recommended closings represents should be a cause for rejoicing, especially in the federal budget crunch. But because large military installations often are located in or near towns that become thoroughly dependent on them for jobs and economic support, the closedowns inevitably take a human toll and produce local protest.
But even before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the reduction of the Soviet threat, the American military was muscle-bound in part as a result of the eagerness and success of members of Congress to bring installations and jobs into their districts. Sustaining the local economy in some cases became as much a reason for their continued existence than any purely military need.
Missing in the whole base-closing effort has been any appreciable attempt to find alternative, non-military uses for many of these costly installations that could save some jobs and meet national needs. But as long as there is no clamor in the country, or in Congress, to address such glaring problems as disintegration of the nation's infrastructure, the emphasis is going to be on ways to cut the budget, not divert military spending to needed works at home.
There was a time when a powerful member of Congress such as the late Democratic Rep. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in the mid-1960s, was able to turn his congressional district, in effect, into one huge military installation without fear of anyone lifting a finger or a voice in protest.
Such pork-barrel politics continues today, although not on that scale. Notably, neither the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn of Georgia, nor his House counterpart, Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, is losing any installations in his state.
But some members of Congress are going to be subject to voter protest for the loss of jobs in their districts. Challengers in the 1992 campaign no doubt will criticize incumbents whose districts have taken the hit. But because there is no procedure for Congress to pick and choose which bases are to be closed and which left open when the matter lands on its doorstep, incumbents can say "Don't blame me" with more credibility than if Congress itself did the ax-wielding. This may be one commission, therefore, that makes more sense than most.