Last week, Marylanders saw first-hand why cutting the federal deficit is so difficult. The Base Closure and Realignment Commission's decision to close military bases in Annapolis, Washington and Montgomery counties reminds us that meaningful budget reductions always hurt someone. The programs that must be eliminated are not all anonymous waste. They have a human face. In this case, it is the face of ordinary working people who depend on military bases to put bread on their tables.
The base closures will cost more than 2,200 Marylanders their jobs and harm countless related businesses. The demise of Fort Ritchie, which sits at the northeastern corner of Washington County near the Pennsylvania line, means the little town of Cascade no longer has a reason to exist. Cascade is the base. Without the military population and retirees who depend on Fort Ritchie for their benefits, Washington County economic development officials estimate local businesses will lose more than 40 percent of their revenues. State and local leaders promise to use the three years before the base shuts down to help people find new jobs and look for new uses for the installation.
But state officials admit they foolishly didn't believe these closures would happen and never planned to deal with them. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's promise to "start tomorrow" finding new uses for the bases and new jobs for their employees comes as small consolation. Right now, the future for these people looks desolate.
And yet, traumatic as these closures are, they must be carried out. Military installations exist not for the people who work there or use their facilities, but for the sake of the country's defense. And defense needs have changed drastically over the past decade. The Soviet Union, once our biggest threat, is no more. Since the military buildup during the Reagan years, defense spending has shrunk by 40 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis, and troop strength has dropped by 30 percent. Yet even if all 177 bases the commission looked at were closed -- and it proposes shutting only 90 while realigning 33 others -- the U.S. still will have reduced its installations by only 21 percent.
Politically, President Clinton has much to lose by accepting the commission's proposals; the closures hit California hardest, the state with the most electoral votes. But neither he nor any other elected leader can claim to be serious about solving the country's biggest problem -- the deficit -- unless they are willing to make cuts that matter.