Washington — The Pentagon and key members of Congress are moving to stamp ``surplus'' on some United States military bases and close them down. Dozens of armed forces facilities have long been rated expendable by the Defense Department. Pressure from congressional boosters has kept most open - but a proposed base-closing commission may overcome such pork-barrel politics.
This year ``there's going to be a big fight over base closings,'' predicts Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In recent weeks, staff of Representative Aspin, his powerful Senate counterpart, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, and Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci have been holding quiet talks about ways to shut bases. Saving money is their motive: Analysts estimate that unnecessary facilities are costing the military $2 billion to $5 billion a year.
A blue-ribbon base-shutting commission is the method this group has settled on, according to Aspin and other knowledgeable sources. Some details remain to be settled. But when the full House begins debate later this month on its 1989 defense bill, it is likely that an amendment establishing such a panel will be pushed by the House leadership.
Under current plans, commission members would quickly list an assortment of bases judged past their prime. The Pentagon would then have to close all these facilities. Reversal of a base closing would require a majority vote by Congress.
Candidates for closing abound. Real-estate tycoon Donald Trump is a minor landholder compared to the Pentagon, which maintains more than 4,000 pieces of property within the United States.
Some of these bases are simply old and expensive to maintain. Fort Monroe, in Virginia, partly dates from the early 1800s and is still surrounded by a moat.
Some may be redundant. The training of Army recruits done at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, could easily be performed at similar training facilities in South Carolina or Missouri, according to some analysts.
Others may have lost their strategic purpose. Loring Air Force Base in Maine is the US bomber base closest to Moscow, but is itself now vulnerable to surprise attack from modern submarine missiles.
Though the Pentagon's image is that of an institution that clings fiercely to every possession it has, in fact every President from Eisenhower to Carter has persuaded the military to put together base-closing packages.
In 1985, at the request of Barry Goldwater, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, the Pentagon submitted to Congress a list of 22 bases ripe for possible closure.
But in recent years little has come of these efforts. The military seldom pushes hard to shut facilities, and stiff opposition inevitably arises from lawmakers worried about the economic effect on their constituents.
Fort Devens, for instance, a World War I-vintage base in northeastern Massachusetts, was on the 1985 base hit list. But if it were shut 2,200 civilians in the area would lose their jobs, according to Defense Department figures.
No major base has been closed since 1977. A law enacted by Congress that year has made it easy for base boosters to preserve facilities. Under the law, the Pentagon must produce detailed environmental impact studies on proposed base closings - an expensive and lengthy process that gives local members of Congress time to organize and strike back.
The proposed base-closing commission would have to have the power to circumvent this process if it is to be effective, according to congressional sources. Waiving or accelerating the environmental review process are options under consideration.
The panel would also have to be bipartisan, or at least choose targets in a bipartisan manner. If all or most of the bases chosen for closure were in the districts of Democratic lawmakers, the Democratic-controlled Congress might revolt. The idea to use a blue-ribbon panel as a way to defuse political opposition to base closings comes from a bill introduced in Congress the past several years by Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas.
Now that the idea has been adopted by congressional leaders ``it's going to lead to a substantial number of closings,'' predicts an aide to Representative Armey.