Closing (Ouch) Military Bases

July 15, 1991

When it comes to tough decisions on Capitol Hill these days, the trick is to save Congress from itself. That's why trade agreements, under presidential "fast-track" authority, are voted up or down in their entirety. To open them to amendment would expose individual legislators to irresistible pressures from special-interest groups. That's why, in the far touchier business of closing military bases, the same all-or-nothing approach is being used for the most sweeping defense retrenchment in decades.

President Bush has now given his "enthusiastic" approval to a plan to close 34 defense facilities nationwide and to phase down a couple dozen more. More than 100,000 jobs -- two-thirds military, one-third civilian -- will eventually be gone. Maryland comes out pretty well, losing 3,000 jobs here and there but picking up 3,200 in other adjustments, which is why cries of anguish are muted in our state. Not so just to the north, where the proposed closing of the historic Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and Base has prompted a court challenge from Pennsylvania lawmakers.

While political hearts are bound to bleed when Billy Penn's depressed city loses 9,000 (count 'em) jobs, the political fraternity would be aghast if the court challenge were to succeed. For at that point, Congress would be thrown back on the old system of every member having to prove his prowess by protecting home district pork. No excuses, no protection from angry voters -- and no way to downsize the armed forces with the Cold War at an end.

Under the system to save Congress from itself, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney drew up a list of proposed base closings in April, a review commission made only a few changes and Mr. Bush accepted its recommendations. The savings: $8 billion in this decade. Now Congress has 45 legislative days to go along or balk, knowing that the latter course would invite a presidential veto that would be almost impossible to override.

So, this important exercise in aligning the military establishment with security and budget realities is a done deal. And just as well. It will be very painful for tens of thousands of citizens who lose their jobs and dozens of communities that lose important economic assets. But the lesson needs to be learned that the Pentagon cannot -- and should not -- be a perpetual growth machine. While military bases bring in money, many communities have learned that productive civilian enterprise is more profitable over the long run and makes the nation a lot more competitive in world markets.

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