They Said It Couldn't Be Done

BEVERLY BYRON

September 24, 1993|By BEVERLY BYRON

There was a time not long ago when many of my friends in Congress thought the chance of closing a domestic military base was about the same as the chance of Yasser Arafat partying at the White House with Yitzhak Rabin.

Guess what.

Messrs. Arafat and Rabin were last seen hands clasped one to the other on the South Lawn of the White House. And unless Congress rules otherwise at the last minute, we're about to set the wheels in motion to close 130 U.S. military bases.

That's right. Our government has actually found a way to beat the political resistance and close obsolete military bases.

It is called the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. On July 1 it sent the president its list of recommended closures and realignments. Unless Congress rejects the list within 45 legislative days after receiving it -- a clock that runs out tomorrow -- the recommendations become law. The closings that follow will ultimately save the American taxpayers more than $2 billion a year.

As one of the seven members of that independent panel, I can tell you that the decisions were never easy. Many were downright painful to make.

In one session, one commissioner agonized over a decision to close a base where he had served many years ago as a naval officer and later returned to command. It went beyond service. He had a personal attachment to the base. He had been married in the base chapel. After weighing the evidence, considering the alternatives, he voted to close the facility. He did what he had to do, what was best for the country, without fear of political reprisal.

Why, you may ask, is a small panel of American citizens making decisions about something so important as military bases? The short answer is that Congress finally realized that it had constructed so many legal obstacles in the interest of protecting jobs back home that it was literally impossible for the secretary of defense to close an unnecessary facility.

A shrinking military and a rising federal deficit finally prompted Congress to deal with the problem by creating an independent commission. A new law requires the secretary of defense to submit a proposed list of closings to the Presidential Commission by March 15 of each round. It requires the commission to hold public hearings and to make modifications to the secretary's list, based on strict and limited criteria.

In an effort to depoliticize the process, Congress wrote the law in such a way that the closure process takes place in non-election years: 1991, 1993 and again in 1995. The process will expire after the 1995 round unless Congress renews the law. In light of the continuing down-sizing of our military, I fully expect further rounds of closings.

In accordance with the law, four commissioners were nominated by the president early this year after consultation with the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the majority leader of the Senate. Two commissioners were nominated after consultation with the House and Senate minority leaders. The remaining two commission appointments, including mine, were made independently by President Bush.

Lobbying was intense throughout the process. Communities worked a full-court press on us. Workers and economic-development officials employed an array of lobbyists

and public-relations consultants as each community sought to justify its military base in terms of economic importance and the nation's defense strategy. The city of Charleston, South Carolina, committed nearly $1 million to the fray in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid closure of its naval station, shipyard and other facilities.

After the secretary of defense gave us his recommendations in March, the commission conducted more than 125 official visits to activities at each major installation on the list. I personally visited more than 30 between March 15 and July 1.

The Commission also held 17 regional hearings across the country, seven investigative hearings in Washington and three more days of hearings where we received testimony from more than 200 members of Congress. Members of Congress lobbied me at every turn. I am precluded by law from lobbying Congress for one year. They are not precluded from lobbying me. Interesting.

Our final deliberative meetings, during which we made final decisions on our closure list, took place in Washington over the course of a week. Our last session ended at 6:30 on Sunday evening, June 27. Each of our hearings and meetings was conducted in public. And most were carried on national television. We became C-Span regulars.

The fallout from base closures and realignments necessarily affects the lives and careers of tens of thousands of skilled employees, many of whom have been dedicated to the defense of our nation for decades.

In all, about 125,000 employees will be eliminated or uprooted as a result of our decisions. And yet our decisions had to be made with hard numbers and compassion, both being considered.

The bad news for Maryland is that we lost nearly 2,300 jobs as a result of cutbacks mostly in the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Montgomery County and the Naval Electronics Engineering Activity in St. Mary's County.

The good news is that roughly 7,500 positions will be moved to Naval facilities at White Oak in Montgomery County and to Patuxent River Naval Station in St. Mary's County. And the Annapolis facility of the Naval Surface Warfare Center was spared.

Given the scope of the commission's recommendations and the terrible impact felt by places like Charleston and the San Francisco Bay area, Maryland came out a winner this time.

$ Now we look to 1995.

Former Rep. Beverly Byron, R-Md., was a member of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

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