Communities gird for fight over base closures - part V

With 200 shut down in recent years, targeting new ones is increasingly tough.

Like a bobbing horse on a carousel, one of Washington's perennial issues is about to circle 'round again. And it's sure to generate a far more explosive reaction than any painted Dobbin.

The issue is whether to shut down more US military bases in an effort to save money that could then be spent on other parts of the nation's soon-to-be rising military budget, such as training troops and buying exotic new weapons.

Four rounds of closures, affecting nearly 200 bases, have already occurred in recent years, each hotly controversial and sparking bitter protest by Congress and affected communities. The key question is always "which bases?" With the more obvious choices already closed, it's a question that has become increasingly tough to answer and one which will likely be the subject of controversy in coming months, as communities and their representatives fight to protect what they have.

Many military experts agree with Michael O'Hanlon, author of Defense Policy Choices for the Bush Administration, that "there is no doubt that we need to eliminate more bases. It costs a lot of money [to maintain the current 400]: It boils down to bases versus bullets."

That's the argument the Bush administration is expected to make later this month when it reveals a detailed Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2002, which begins Oct. 1. Three months ago, President Bush said in the barebones budget outline: "With 23 percent in excess infrastructure, it is clear that new rounds of base closures will be necessary to shape the military more efficiently."

In many areas, community leaders and members of Congress immediately huddled to figure out how to defend their bases. Glendale, Ariz., even hired a a retired Air Force general as a consultant to advise the city on how to prevent closure of nearby Luke Air Force Base, should it be threatened. The message to this administration, as to its predecessors, is clear: The bases will be defended as fiercely as many have defended the nation.

The issue, nearly everyone agrees, is political, not military. Bases cannot be closed unless Congress, which has frequently criticized closures, votes to approve shutting them down. "There is a natural reluctance for politicians to close bases," notes Jim Miller, budget director for the second Reagan administration. When facilities are shut down, people are thrown out of work, and the local economy can be hit hard. "What people expect members of Congress to do is to protect their interests."

Besides, in the short run, closing bases doesn't save the Defense Department money. Often it adds to expenses, given the need to cancel contracts, transfer essential operations to other facilities, and, sometimes, deal with environmental contamination. "But there is money to be saved in the long run," Mr. Miller and others insist.

Congress set up a firm base-closing procedure a few years ago. Each time the Defense Department wants to consider closures, Congress must first establish a commission - the Base Realignment and Closure commission, or BRAC. Commission members are appointed by the president and by both houses of Congress. The Pentagon lists bases it would like to close; starting with that list, the commission makes its recommendations. Congress must vote yes or no on them all: No bases can be considered individually.

One proposal to establish such a commission, sponsored primarily by Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin (D), is now sitting quietly before Congress, which will likely consider it together with the Defense Department's appropriations budget, expected to be made public this month.

Backers of closure hope to gain force for their argument from a budget that seeks large amounts of money for military expenses. Once Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spells out what the military's needs are and recommends shutting down bases, says Mr. O'Hanlon, a firestorm of protest will flare up. But, "ultimately he will get [closures], because, in the end, members of Congress won't be able to develop serious arguments against it."

"That's possible," concedes veteran Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank. But he and most congressional observers think that those who want to shut bases will be underdogs. "We're talking about a major battleground here," he says.

Each round of base closures is more difficult than the one before. Bases that were hard to justify keeping open have already been closed; arguments for maintaining the current ones are stronger.

Then, too, the issue will be protracted, most think. Congress, in this view, won't be voting on shutting facilities down until next year - only months before all members of the House, and about one-third of the Senate, have to face the music from voters. "At a time when unemployment is on the rise, why would anybody vote for a program that's going to increase unemployment" among voters, asks Stan Collender, a military expert at a Washington-based public affairs firm.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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