Back to Basics: Base Closings

Clearly, some upward ratcheting of defense spending is called for. The costs of the Kosovo war have to be met. Modernization of forces and higher military salaries are priorities. But the military appropriations bill steaming through Congress mixes a heavy dollop of politics with needs.

Recent evidence of this is the Senate's rejection of an amendment to its defense authorization bill that would have initiated base closings that the Pentagon itself desires. The House is expected to act soon after it returns from the Memorial Day break.

For a number of years, Defense Department planners have followed a process called BRAC (base realignments and closures) to try to match physical facilities with a leaner US military. Earlier rounds of base closings got rid of much excess capacity. But the Pentagon says it still has substantially more infrastructure than it needs. The General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office agree. Those relatively objective sources estimate a further round of base closings would save more than $2 billion a year.

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The savings may not loom large in a Pentagon budget that's surging beyond $260 billion yearly. But it's money that could profitably be used to boost long-term readiness at a time when funds are flowing toward the Kosovo conflict.

Congress is little moved by that argument. Many lawmakers can't see beyond the impact further base closings could have on home states or districts. Local economies can be hit hard by base shutdowns, certainly. But many communities have weathered the change and recovered.

The administration's critics also like to point out that President Clinton himself manipulated the base-closing issue for political purposes before the 1996 election.

Most important, however, is the impact of unneeded bases on military efficiency and federal budgeting. They represent waste, pure and simple. Congress should take the wider view, embrace the national interest, and authorize the next round of BRAC.

With the House still to act, an about-face on base closings is possible. Pentagon and congressional opponents of waste should keep at it.

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