Base Motives

For much of this century France's Maginot Line was the all-purpose symbol for outdated, ineffective defense policy. Its thick-walled but immobile fortifications stayed magnificently in place as German tanks blitzed around them.

Now, the US Congress has gone 1930s Paris one better. With devastating lack of logic, it has voted to keep a Maginot Line of unneeded domestic US military bases, whose cost will undermine the modernizing of America's downsized military forces.

Specifically, Congress voted not to accept carefully reviewed Pentagon plans to carry out two more rounds of base closings in 1999 and 2001. (Since the end of the cold war, Congress has authorized base cuts of only 21 percent while cutting total defense by 36 percent.)

The shortsighted decision was quite bipartisan. Republicans who have pushed for more spending on missile defense systems and new high-tech weapons joined supposedly anti-Pentagon Democrats. As if to prove women are from Mars not Venus, California's two women senators were vocally pro-bases.

In the past, we have agreed with critics of the Defense Department's procurement system. And we have been skeptical of war-gaming scenarios that justified big Pentagon budgets at the expense of other national priorities and private-sector growth.

But recent defense secretaries and joint chiefs have been quite successful at reforming such excesses. Congress should credit their savvy on trimming the fat of excess bases.

Taking away candy is always hard. Witness fears about reforming welfare, phasing out farm subsidies, and means-testing Medicare benefits - to name just a few recent and pending changes brought on by budget balancing. But constituents often adjust more successfully than their fearful representatives in Congress. Already we are seeing success stories from some states' efforts to train and place former welfare recipients in jobs. Wealthier retirees will certainly be able to pay a modestly higher share of Medicare bills. And farmers are switching crops and using formerly idled land. (Tobacco farmers, too, should be able to find less lethal crops without squeezing a new long-term subsidy from Uncle Sam.)

In past rounds of base closing, with adequate warning, communities have been able to attract new businesses to provide jobs for idled base workers. In today's booming economy, there is little reason to fear America can't manage to do so once more. We hope Congress will return to the subject soon, and reverse its decision.

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