Military bases aren't a jobs program

Congress can complain as much as it wants about the president and Supreme Court stepping on its powers, but it belittles itself when it acts in very narrow-minded ways. The latest example: The pressure within Congress to save local military bases.

Last May, the Pentagon proposed shuttering or moving 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations as part of a strategic plan. Many of the bases were once needed for the cold war, but not now, with new types of threats and advanced warfare.

That military vision, however, was blurred in last week's decisions by a nine-member commission set up by Congress to challenge the Pentagon's wisdom. After intense lobbying by members of Congress whose districts stood to lose bases, the commission recommended that about 15 to 20 percent of the sites be kept open, notably a naval shipyard and submarine base in New England, and a strategic air base in South Dakota. Now the commission's recommendations must be accepted totally first by the White House, then by Congress - or rejected, as would be the best course, with a new round of review.

The commissioners claim their choices were based mainly on disagreements with the Pentagon over the amount of savings in closing many big bases. They may be right on the strict accounting, but that misses the larger point that these closures are judged as necessary for military preparedness by a wide range of Pentagon experts. No commission can match that depth of expertise.

Bases often do have a footprint in local areas, and closing them can be costly, in human and economic terms. The commission's chairman, Anthony Principi, admitted its decisions looked at the "human and painful impact of those proposals."

But bases cannot be kept open to keep jobs or help a local economy. US defense requirements, especially at a time of war and in a fluid threat environment, must not be compromised by local political pressures.

Previous base closings since the end of the cold war have served both the nation and local areas well. Federal aid may be needed to help a community adjust. But many areas that lost bases have since discovered more abundant economic activity or other uses such as open green space. A former naval airbase in Glenview, Ill., for instance, has become a thriving, planned village.

Transforming the military to make it more effective requires it to be immune to narrow political voices. In recent decades, Congress has lost much legitimacy, and thus authority, to the president in deciding when to deploy military forces. This weakness is due in part to incumbents catering to special interests, such as base workers who clearly know their work depends on shifting defense needs.

Next week, a Senate committee will challenge Supreme Court nominee John Roberts about his views on the high court's regular overturning of laws passed by Congress. Many of those laws were constitutionally weak from the start because they, too, catered mainly to special interests.

To regain stature, Congress must stand up to local interests and explain national interests to hometown voters - who may just decide that bringing home the bacon isn't the only task for their representatives.

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