CHICAGO - It's officially called the Department of Defense, but to many politicians, the label misstates its function. Judging from their reaction to proposed base closures, they'd like to rename it the Department of Jobs, Pork, Community Uplift and Incumbent Protection. That way, no one would get distracted by the petty business of protecting America.
Recently, the Pentagon released a list of proposed realignments in U.S. military facilities. The plan calls for shutting 33 major installations and shrinking 29 others, which would streamline operations and save nearly $50 billion over 20 years.
But elected officials representing areas that would be adversely affected showed little interest in whether the changes would reduce costs, improve operations or cure cancer. They preferred to focus on the overriding issue: Their states or districts would lose federal jobs and dollars that they assumed to be a birthright.
From Capitol Hill came piteous lamentations and promises to resist. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said he and others in the state's congressional delegation would "push every single button we can to get the right decision." Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, accused the Pentagon of deciding "to dramatically neglect the Northeastern United States." Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said the proposed closure of a submarine base in his state "is cruel and unusual punishment that Connecticut does not deserve and our national security cannot afford."
But if Connecticut doesn't deserve it, two questions arise: 1) What state does? and 2) Who cares? This is not a task on the order of cutting a birthday cake for 6-year-olds, where fairness demands that everyone gets an equal share. Fairness should be irrelevant when it comes to national defense.
Suspicions arose that politics, not security, may have determined which states get the shaft. But if the administration is trying to reward its friends and punish its enemies, it's going about it in a strange way. True, Texas would gain jobs in the realignment - but not as many as Maryland, a true-blue state with two Democratic senators (although a Republican governor). Massachusettsalso came out ahead.
Alaska, which is more consistently Republican than the Bush family, would lose more than 4,600 jobs. Red states such as Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina are among those slated for sizable job cuts.
The apparent subordination of political concerns doesn't mean all the changes are sound. But it at least means the people drafting the list were asking the right questions.
It would have been refreshing to hear one member of Congress say his or her constituents would stoically accept these sacrifices in the interest of national security. Instead, 11 senators are co-sponsoring a bill to delay the closures.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, national security is what the base-closing process is about. Contrary to the prevailing impression on Capitol Hill, the only criterion is whether the changes will make us safer while economizing tax dollars.
If the plan achieves that goal, it will be an excellent thing for all Americans - something most of them probably know, despite what their elected representatives say. Even in the dramatically neglected Northeastern United States, I suspect, staying alive is the highest priority.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.