Base Closings Meant To Bypass Politics

This article first appeared in the May 27, 2005, edition of The Hartford Courant.

Politicians from several states are lobbying to save their military bases. Sen. Joseph Lieberman called the Pentagon decision to shut the Navy's submarine base in Groton "cruel and unusual punishment that Connecticut does not deserve" and, like others, he vowed to fight the closure. 

Such efforts are meant to convince constituents that if politicians hire the right high-powered lobbyists or spread around enough money or contact the right people, they can save their bases. Connecticut alone has budgeted $1.2 million to save Groton. 

But nothing could be further from the truth. These efforts will have no impact and are a waste of taxpayers' money. Moreover, they give the false impression that the base closure process is simply another exercise in the crass politics. 

In fact, the base realignment and closure process was created to take the politics out of the process so that the Pentagon would not continue to waste money on unnecessary infrastructure. 

Base realignment closure came into being 20 years ago, when Sen. Barry Goldwater assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee and was startled to discover that a law enacted in 1977 essentially prevented the Pentagon from closing bases. The law was pushed by the Maine congressional delegation to prevent the closure of Loring Air Force Base. It required the Department of Defense to give a year's notice to Congress before closing a base and to conduct studies on the economic, environmental and strategic impact of the closures. Any member of Congress who could not figure out what to do in a year to save his base never would have been elected to the legislature. Moreover, the studies could be and were challenged in court, thus putting a base closure on hold or derailing it altogether. 

Before the 1977 law, the Pentagon could simply announce a list of bases it was closing. No congressional approval was required. Closing bases was common after major changes in our defense posture. But after 1977, the process ground to a halt, and the Pentagon was forced to waste increasing sums on unnecessary facilities. 

When Goldwater assumed the chairmanship, the Pentagon had 40 percent excess capacity in its base structure. The Arizona senator, an avid supporter of a robust national defense but a fierce critic of defense waste, asked the Pentagon for a list of bases it would close if it could. When the list was made public, it was so extensive that members of both parties recognized something had to be done to prevent such a huge waste of money without jeopardizing political careers. (Full disclosure: I prepared the list.) 

What Congress did, under the leadership of Goldwater and Rep. Dick Armey, was to remove the process from politics. The Pentagon would draw up a list. To ensure that the Pentagon was not punishing adversaries or favoring friends, a bipartisan commission, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, would review the list and add to or subtract from it as appropriate. 

In the first decade after Goldwater's complaint, the BRAC process was conducted four times. Some 100 major bases and several hundred smaller facilities were closed or downsized. That reduced capacity by 20 percent and saved more than $40 billion; it continues to save the government $7 billion a year. But the Pentagon still has significant excess capacity and could save another $5 billion a year if it closes the bases on BRAC's May 13 list. 

The irony is that the base closure process not only saves taxpayer money, but affected communities are usually better off in the long run. Since 1988, more than 100,000 jobs have been created in the cities and towns affected by the base closure process. Department of Defense studies show that within six years those communities that take advantage of the programs offered by the government are better off economically. 

For example, Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, which was closed in 1994, has generated $4 billion in economic activity, including new homes and commercial properties. The 1,400-acre shipyard in Charleston, S.C., which was closed in 1993, has turned into a beehive of commercial and residential activity. There is no reason why the New London area cannot emulate Denver and Charleston. (I know it can. I lived in the area for four years when I taught at the Coast Guard Academy.)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it well when he said the base closure process is a good thing. So let the process begin and let the politicians back off.

Lawrence Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. He was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration (1981-85).

 

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