Military Base Closings

April 06, 1993

Congress needs to be saved from itself if ever the nation is to reduce its surfeit of military bases.

Luckily the mechanism exists for doing just that: the Commission on Base Realignment and Closure. After hearing the pathetic squeals of legislators who have lost military pork in their home districts, its independent members will publish at mid-year the names of installations scheduled for closing or downsizing. Then, President Clinton and Congress will have to accept or reject the whole list. No changes allowed.

Is this an infringement on the powers of the legislative and executive branches? Of course it is. Both institutions decided on self-infringement in 1988 after it become evident that they needed political cover to reduce overloaded military inventories.

Even with passing the buck to the commission, the job is hard enough. When Defense Secretary Les Aspin received recommendations from the three armed services last month, recession-hit California was due to lose eight major bases -- almost one-fourth of the total. So its delegation adopted "in your face" tactics and pressured Mr. Aspin to reprieve two installations. The commission, however, placed them back on the hit list.

This is the stuff of drama on Capitol Hill, what with every member under pressure from back home. Maryland is a good example. This state came through the Pentagon vetting process in fine shape, with its overall military-base payroll actually up despite a proposal to shut down the Naval Electronic Systems Engineering Activity and its 2,819 jobs in St. Mary's County. Predictably, Rep. Steny Hoyer joined myriad colleagues at the wailing wall to lament this loss. It is stylized theater, with the denouement all but foretold.

Actually, the problem with the new Aspin hit list is not that it is too drastic but that it is too modest. As the Cold War ended, there were 495 air bases, army barracks, shipyards and other facilities scattered around the country. There are still more than 400. Despite base closings ordered in 1988 and 1991, only 10 percent have actually shut down. The Navy, destined for a 300-ship fleet, has facilities for a thousand. Every dollar spent to maintain a superfluous base is a dollar lost for weaponry acquisition or personnel needs. Mr. Aspin has testified that by 1997 defense spending will have been cut 42 percent from its peak, uniformed personnel by 30 percent but military bases by only 15 percent -- even with his new cuts. That 15 percent will eventually shave $5.6 billion a year in a defense budget now totaling $263 billion.

There is no denying that any loss of military jobs and contracts is often excruciating for many communities. As soon as the first word gets out, property values plunge, business investment stops and minds concentrate on stopping the execution instead of preparing for what comes after. This whole process is too painful to be left to mere politicians. Enter the Commission on Base Realignment and Closure.

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