Military Base Closure Process Hard to Stop

While many members of Congress have reacted in horror to the announcement of base closings around the nation, there is not much they can do to reverse the process.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Thirty-three major military bases are on the proposed chopping block in the Pentagon's latest round of downsizing. Another 29 large installations would be consolidated. And counting the smaller sites, a total of more than 800 installations would be shut down or realigned in the first base reorganization in a decade. The plan was unveiled today, and lawmakers from states slated to lose bases have until early September to appeal the Pentagon's decisions to the independent Base Realignment and Closure commission, or BRAC. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

The Pentagon's base closure list would lead to a net loss of about 29,000 military and civilian jobs around the nation, a downsizing and consolidation that Defense Department officials say would save nearly $50 billion over the next two decades. The region hit hardest by base closings is New England. Among bases there slated for closure is the 205-year-old Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and New Hampshire, which employs more than 4,000 civilians. Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, said today such a closure defies all logic.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): Today's decision by the Department of Defense is nothing short of stunning, devastating and, above all, outrageous. It's a travesty and a strategic blunder of epic proportions on the part of the Defense Department.

WELNA: And Snowe's fellow Republican Senator John Sununu from neighboring New Hampshire was equally indignant about the Pentagon's decision.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire; Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee): It's an outrageous choice to target the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard which has done the work that they do on L A-class submarines more cost-effectively, faster and with a better safety record than any other shipyard in the country, public or private. You just don't close the best-performing shipyard in the country.

WELNA: Sununu and Snowe say they'll take their own numbers and arguments before the Base Closure and Realignment commission, as will many other lawmakers who stand to lose bases and jobs in their states or districts. Jeremiah Gertler was a senior analyst with the last commission that oversaw base closures in 1995. He says the commission is designed to allow challenges to the Pentagon's base closing decisions.

Mr. JEREMIAH GERTLER (Former Senior Analyst, BRAC): Base Closure commission doesn't close bases. It's the court of appeal for the communities to try and change the recommendation. And I don't doubt that the New Hampshire folks and the Maine folks--that shipyard is half in each state--will be pushing very hard to make that happen.

WELNA: Another lawmaker who vows to push hard for a reconsideration is South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune. Last fall, he defeated incumbent Democrat Tom Daschle, in part by saying he was in a better position to defend South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base against closure. That base, which has half the nation's B-1 bombers and is the state's second-largest employer, is among those slated for closure. Thune told CNN today he'll lead the fight in the Senate to keep Ellsworth open.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): But I'm going to be very anxious, as is everybody in South Dakota next week, when these details actually come out to see how they went about ranking these various bases. This is in a base with an extraordinary record. And again, I think the Pentagon made a grave error in judgment, because I don't think it makes sense to put all our eggs in one basket and have all our bombers in one location. That puts us in a very vulnerable position.

WELNA: But Defense analyst Gertler says most of the bases targeted for closure by the Pentagon do end up on the commission's list for closure as well.

Mr. GERTLER: Historically, they approve about 85 percent of the Department of Defense's recommendations, so it's a hard row to hoe. I'll put one caveat on that, though. This year, we have two former congressmen and two former administration level officials as members of the commissions. That's unprecedented, so congressmen looking to have a political impact will have people sitting there on the commission who understand how Washington works.

WELNA: The commission will hold hearings around the nation over the coming months and make its own recommendations to President Bush September 8th. The president can ask once that its list be revised, and then he must submit it to Congress in early November. Christopher Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation says he expects whatever President Bush sends Congress will be approved.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HELLMAN (Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation): Both houses of Congress have to act to disprove the list. And if they don't act, it goes forward. And in the three rounds where that mechanism was in place in the past, neither house has ever voted to override the Base Closure commission's recommendations.

WELNA: Hellman says that's because while some lawmakers lose bases in this round, many others have been spared. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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