Congress Fighting Base Closure Plan
Although the BRAC process is supposed to take the politics out of base closures, Congressmen from effected districts are lining up to kill the latest set of closures. The Week Magazine has a good rundown of some frequently asked questions.
Why is the Pentagon doing this?
To save money, for starters. Officials say the reductions will save $50 billion over two decades. But money is only part of it. The changes are a major component of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld�s effort to transform the military into a leaner, more agile force. Rumsfeld says the current military infrastructure was set up for conflicts that are now over, and are not useful in the war on terrorism. �Current arrangements were pretty much designed for the Cold War,� Rumsfeld says. The military will be more cohesive and less wasteful, he says, if training facilities and other base operations for all branches are combined into a smaller number of large facilities, instead of having dozens of redundant bases for the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force. So the Pentagon closure plan calls for merging some Army and Navy bases, and combining functions ranging from training cooks to treating the wounded. �Does it really matter what uniform a doctor wears?� says military analyst Chris Hellman.
Who can argue with that?
A lot of people, it turns out. The affected communities are in an uproar. In Connecticut, local officials say closing the submarine base could result in the eventual loss of 30,000 jobs�from high-tech subcontractors to workers at restaurants and bars. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) calls the planned closing �cruel and unusual punishment� for his state. But an independent commission reviewing the Pentagon plan says military preparedness is the only valid consideration, not �economic dislocation.�
Where does that leave the critics?
Insisting that the closures would endanger our national security. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, hoping to save the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, says its demise would �leave serious gaps in air defense and homeland security.� In South Dakota, Republican Sen. John Thune says the same about the proposed shuttering of the Ellsworth Air Force Base, home of the largely outmoded B-1 bomber. Thune won his race against former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle last year partly by arguing that his ties to a Republican White House would help ensure Ellsworth�s survival. The Pentagon, Thune now says, is �dead wrong to recommend closing a single base while we�re at war.�
Can such criticism make a difference?
Probably not. In the late 1980s, Congress established a system for base closures that largely takes the decisions out of the realm of pork-barrel politics. The nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, appointed by the president, is now reviewing the Pentagon recommendations. It has until September to make any changes. Its list will then go to Congress, which must consider the proposal as a whole. If lawmakers don�t reject the entire plan within 45 days, the recommendations will take effect. Critics� best hope, then, is convincing the commission to overrule the Pentagon�something it has rarely done in the past. So most experts expect the current proposal will stay intact.
What will that mean for the affected communities?
Judging by history, it will be a mixed bag. A new report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that overall, communities affected by past closures have bounced back. The GAO said that 85 percent of the nearly 130,000 jobs lost as a result of base closings since 1988 have been recovered, thanks to commercial development on the former military land. The old Presidio Army installation in San Francisco, which was closed in 1994, is now a national park, as well as the headquarters of George Lucas� film company. Austin converted the Bergstrom Air Force Base into the Bergstrom-Austin International Airport; it contributes $1.8 billion a year to the city�s economy. But other former bases have not fared so well.
Given the up-or-down nature of the process, I’d be very surprised if Congress defeated the BRAC list. Still, if there’s a year for it, this might be it. The previous lists came during peacetime. It’s much harder to justify closing down these bases–and the attendant jobs–when there’s a war on.