Pentagon Too Broke To Help 2 Chairmen


January 21, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- For the first time in 30 years, the chairmanships of the Senate and House armed services committees are occupied by legislators from the same state.

The Republican takeover of Congress gave Sen. Strom Thurmond, 92, of South Carolina control of the Senate panel. In the House, a fellow South Carolinian, Rep. Floyd D. Spence, 66, is chairman of the newly named National Security Committee.

In the old days of expanding defense budgets, such a tandem act at the center of defense policy-making would have guaranteed a bonanza for the folks back home. But not in these penny-pinching days, when the emphasis is more on cutbacks than contracts.

The only post-World War II precedent for two armed services chairmen from the same state was the twin power of Sen. Richard B. Russell and Rep. Carl Vinson, both Democrats from Georgia.

They headed the House and Senate committees from 1951 until 1965, except for a two-year break, from 1953 to 1955, when the GOP last held congressional sway.

Under their committee stewardships, defense spending in Georgia shot up, bases expanded and a major defense contractor, Lockheed, was lured to the state.

Extraordinary power

In those days, committee chairmen had extraordinary power to influence decisions in the Pentagon and in corporate boardrooms about where and how to spend money on defense.

By the time Mr. Russell's and Mr. Vinson's twin chairmanships ended in 1965, employment at Lockheed's Marietta, Ga., plant had more than doubled, from 10,570 in 1951 to 22,344 -- the largest industrial payroll in the entire Southeast.

In a 1964 speech to the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce, a copy of which was obtained from the Richard B. Russell Memorial Library at the University of Georgia, Mr. Russell boasted that Georgia earned $500 million a year from defense contracts, and was home to 15 major military facilities worth $750 million yearly to the state and providing 35,000 jobs.

Responding to criticism of the concentration of defense establishments in his state, Mr. Russell said: "Georgia rests on a foundation of solid granite and marble, and can support as many military installations as we can bring here."

There was, for example, a new 12,000-foot runway at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Macon that enabled the base to take B-52 bombers and C-131 tankers, and to become the center of a huge airlift between 1955 and 1959 of thousands of fighter planes for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"It was a good era," said Gus Giebelhaus, a professor of history at the School of History, Technology and Society at Georgia Tech. "The Georgia boondoggle occurred at the height of the Cold War. There are parts of the state that just exist off the military trough. It was a very significant economic impact."

Seventh in contracts

The military expansion helped push Georgia, previously one of the poorest states, into fourth place among states benefiting from Pentagon salaries and pensions ($4.2 billion in 1993) and seventh place for defense contracts ($4 billion).

But now, in these post-Cold War days of a shrinking Pentagon purse, any such matching windfall for South Carolina from the Thurmond-Spence twosome seems unlikely.

"It's kind of a different situation than back then," Mr. Spence said. "We now have the problem of downsizing and cutting more investments. Both of us have been strong supporters of defense for a long time. But we are in a position now of just trying to protect what we have down there now."

Chris Cimko, Mr. Thurmond's spokeswoman, said: "As for it being a bonanza for the state, there are no major defense contractors, no major defense systems. It is not likely there is much he could 'bring' to South Carolina."

Even the power of the twinned chairmen to protect their home state from further defense cuts may be limited.

When they were ranking minority members of the two panels, they were unable to stave off a major blow to their state in the 1993 round of base closures -- the closure of the naval complex in Charleston, which has thrown 8,500 civilian jobs into jeopardy.

"I hope we won't have to face that again," Mr. Spence said. "I hope that people will realize we speak with the same voice from that standpoint."

The naval hospital in Charleston and a Marine Corps air station in Beaufort are among possible targets in a new round of base closings this year, which are expected to be more severe than the previous rounds in 1988, 1991 and 1993, which together called for the closure or realignment of 247 defense operations.

Ironically, the only state that suffered more than South Carolina in the 1993 closings was California, the home state of Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, who preceded Mr. Spence as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Decision is insulated

That reflects how the system for selecting the doomed bases is largely insulated from political interference. The Pentagon makes the first selection of bases to be closed, which then goes to an independent commission for evaluation and endorsement.

The list is next sent to the president, who must accept or reject it in its entirety. If he accepts it, it goes to Congress, which must approve or reject the entire selection within 45 days or it automatically becomes law.

"Basically, there is not a lot of wiggle room on the Hill to insulate yourself from base closures," said Andrew Krepinevich of the Defense Budget Project, a Washington think tank.

"One of the interesting things about the armed services committees now is they are no longer highly sought-after positions because defense spending has been declining and because it is not seen as a high priority on the grand scheme of things," said Terry Nyhous, defense budget analyst with Price Waterhouse in Washington.

Mr. Thurmond and Mr. Spence are out to change the perception, but are aware that their chances of doing for South Carolina what was once done for Georgia range from slim to nonexistent.

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