Communities Learn of Military Base Closures

The Base Closure and Realignment Commission begins to announce military base closures. It overrules some of the Pentagon's suggestions, but agrees to shutter many other facilities, including four in Georgia. The commission is holding its final round of hearings through Friday.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The last three months have been a time of nervous anticipation and intense lobbying for dozens of military towns across the country. They've been fighting the Pentagon's May recommendations for military base closures and also that some would be considerably reduced in size. Today many learned the fate of their bases. Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey, Ft. Monroe in Virginia, Ft. Gillem in Georgia are some of the facilities that will be permanently shuttered if the nine-member Base Closure and Realignment Commission's recommendations are accepted by the president of the United States and approved by Congress. The so-called BRAC commission is holding its final round of hearings basically voting on recommendations through Friday. If you've just heard about your hometown base, if you're on pins and needles in anticipation or if you have questions about the process, give us a call: (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us now is Bret Schulte, a staff writer for US News & World Report, who traveled with the commissioners earlier this year as they looked at bases in Maine. While the Portsmouth shipyard in Kittery was spared, the naval air station in Brunswick is now slated for closure. Bret Schulte joins us from his office here in Washington.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BRET SCHULTE (US News & World Report): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: One of the surprises was the commission's 7-to-1 vote to keep the Portsmouth yard open.

Mr. SCHULTE: You know, it was a surprise. And I spoke to a couple military prognosticators just yesterday, and both of them told me the biggest surprise this time around was that there would be no surprises. They thought that Portsmouth was a surefire closure, and they said the same thing about the submarine base in New London.

CONAN: And New London is going to be kept open. There was a whole bunch of people anticipating a big transfer, a lot of new jobs in Kings Bay, Georgia, the other big submarine base on the East Coast.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right. Yeah, what this means to Connecticut I don't think can be overstated. I mean, this is the primary driver of that corner of the state, if not the entire state. And I think that they estimated that it was worth maybe $2 billion to their economy and 31,000 jobs.

CONAN: Explain the process for us. The whole Base Closure and Realignment Commission process was set into train to try to get politics out of this.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right. The way the BRAC process works is, it all starts with the Pentagon coming up over, I think, a period of two years and spending up to $1 billion, if not more, in an effort to look from top to bottom at all their installations across the board and what sort of things are being--what are redundancies in the security forces and how things can be streamlined to, you know, better equip the military for the ever-evolving national security situation. So this was really Donald Rumsfeld's chance to create, in his view, a more nimbler, more modern fighting force.

CONAN: And there were several rounds of Base Closure Commission findings voted on through the 1990s, particularly dealing with redundancies after the end of the Cold War.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right.

CONAN: But the idea of doing it all in one big lump is that if you try to do them one at a time, every member of Congress is going to try to protect the base in their district and, well, `I'll save yours if you'll save mine.'

Mr. SCHULTE: Exactly. And Congress really can't do much about these base closings. Once the Pentagon makes its recommendations, it doesn't go to Congress; it goes to this independent BRAC commission. And the only say Congress has from there is its very limited role in appointing some of these commissioners. Several get appointed by the White House. The leadership of Congress, which is now Republican, gets to pick the majority, and then a few--I think one goes to the speaker of the House, one goes to the minority leader of the House, one goes to the minority leader of the Senate and so forth. You come up with a total of nine. But they're independent. They don't answer to anyone. And they are the ones responsible for looking at the Pentagon's recommendations and evaluating on their own if the data measures up with what they say the criteria are, which is primarily now military value.

CONAN: Now they send a final package to the president, who can tweak it himself, but then it goes to Congress and they can vote the whole package up or down; they cannot amend it.

Mr. SCHULTE: Well, the president can't tweak it himself. Once this list comes out of the BRAC commission's final deliberations, which should wrap up on Saturday, it's going to be forwarded to the president by September 8th. Actually, he has, I think, until September 8th to veto it up or down.

CONAN: Ah.

Mr. SCHULTE: And then it goes to Congress, which has the same right.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us, totn@npr.org.

This is Juliana, Juliana calling from Niagara Falls in New York. Hello, Juliana?

And I guess Juliana has left us. She may have been calling, though--there's a base in Niagara Falls that was slated for closure.

Mr. SCHULTE: I believe that there was. And it would depend on if that base was a Navy base or an Air Force base...

CONAN: Yeah, they've gone first...

Mr. SCHULTE: ...if it's come up yet.

CONAN: Yeah. First they did the Army bases and now they're in the Navy bases.

Mr. SCHULTE: Yeah.

CONAN: I'm not sure that they're into the Air Force bases as yet.

Let me ask about politics in this. Yesterday at his news conference, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said there is not an ounce of politics involved anywhere at all in this, but a lot of people looked at that Pentagon recommendation after it came out in the spring and said, `My word, New England is getting hurt particularly badly. Funny, those are all places that didn't vote for President Bush.'

Mr. SCHULTE: Absolutely. And a lot of political analysts say there's politics involved in everything that comes out of Washington. I mean, just the very fact that these commissioners are appointed by politicians makes the whole thing political. And these commissioners oftentimes are going to be looking forward to having--you know, furthering their careers in Washington. So, you know, it's hard to believe that politics can be completely stripped of anything, especially something that's as important to congressional leaders who, you know, depend on their constituents to, you know, continue with their work and get re-elected, you know, that politics is going to be totally removed from this. Even with the bases being--sort of escaping from the guillotine here in New London and in Portsmouth, a lot of people are already speculating, you know, `Does this mean that since these sort of so-called blue state bases are being opened that this is sort of a deal that is going to be played where a red state base gets saved? and everybody's looking already toward Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

CONAN: And that's a big issue because John Thune, the freshman senator who defeated Tom Daschle, the former Democratic minority leader, campaigned that he as a Republican leader was better slated to save Ellsworth Air Force Base than the minority leader, and then the commission turns around and votes to close it.

Mr. SCHULTE: Absolutely. And, you know, a lot of Republicans thought that John Thune did them a huge favor. Tom Daschle did a pretty effective job in some ways of keeping a lot of Republican legislation from going through the Senate.

CONAN: We're talking about base closures around the country. The commission is voting today.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line. Grace, Grace in Louisville, Kentucky.

GRACE (Caller): Hi. I'm calling because my husband works at a naval base here in Louisville that was on the base closure list three times before in the '90s and got off the list twice. The third time they didn't completely get off the list, but 200 jobs were saved and stayed in Louisville. And now we have to go through it for a fourth time...

Mr. SCHULTE: Mm-hmm.

GRACE: ...and I don't know yet if they've voted on us or not. We're considered a part of a detachment--we're considered a detachment of Port Hueneme, California, base.

Mr. SCHULTE: Is this an Army base or is this...

GRACE: No, it's Navy, and they want to...

Mr. SCHULTE: A Navy base.

GRACE: ...merge them with an Army place in Picaninny, New Jersey.

Mr. SCHULTE: Oh, OK.

CONAN: So convenient for California.

Mr. SCHULTE: Yeah. California...

GRACE: But we're in Louisville, Kentucky, though.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right. I'm sorry--Florida's done very well, and California's done very well. I can't tell you right now if the Navy recruiting command--Is that what it is down there in Louisville?

GRACE: Yeah. It's Naval Surface Warfare Center, Louisville Detachment of Port Hueneme.

Mr. SCHULTE: There's a lot of--this BRAC round is sort of unique because there's so many smaller sort of shifts being made among the military forces. I think there's 222 actions in all, and there's a lot of tweaking going on. So the fact that this BRAC vote is spread over four days just kind of a--is testament to the enormity of this process and how minute a lot of these changes are going to be. In fact, there's been some criticism, you know, that rather than forces being realigned by strategic or congressional leaders, just being sort of done by a committee or a commission without, you know, any say of other folks' concerns.

CONAN: Unelected committee, yeah.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right.

CONAN: Grace, good luck.

GRACE: Well, thanks. And I also want to say that I'm really glad that Groton made it off the list. I'm so happy for those people and that town. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Politics again--there was a curious story. The Washington Post, in a way our local paper here in Washington, DC, also a national paper, of course, but today Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised a big ruckus over what he says is a concerted plan by the Pentagon to move a lot of jobs away from the capital area, away from Washington, DC, and, just by happenstance, away from northern Virginia.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right. He, I think, was accusing the Pentagon of sort of rigging the test to get the sort of answers it wanted. The BRAC criteria is sort of a nebulous thing, but first and foremost, it's supposed to be military value. What the Pentagon said was, you know, `It does not make strategic sense to have this many folks in such a concentrated area,' and that's been a concern for some time. But you know, numbers can be manipulated, and folks all across the country in their fight to save these bases have said, you know, that these numbers don't really add up or that they can add up to a number of different things.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHULTE: So, you know, it's really hard to say. What the GAO said, which is the independent arm of Congress that investigates a lot of the stuff--they came out with a report, and they said, by and large, the Pentagon's numbers make sense. They ring true. There are some problems with them, and those problems have come to light. In fact, the BRAC commission has publicly said, I think in a story in The New York Times, that they were, you know, going to use some of their own numbers in this regardless of what the Pentagon said.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get another caller on. This is Ed, Ed calling from Mountain View, California.

ED (Caller): Hi. I'm Navy and I was stationed at the Concord facility years earlier. In recent years, it was shifted from the Navy to the Army. I'm happy that it's on the closure list. They've largely closed a lot out of the Bay area, and it's a--you have personal memories and regrets, but you know, it's an expensive place where the people aren't welcome. And if there are bases to be shut, it really is the most reasonable.

Mr. SCHULTE: Right. Encroachment and cost, and particularly, you know, the cost of land has played a large part in military base closings in the past. San Francisco used to be a huge military town, or a Navy town, and so did Boston.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHULTE: Neither one of those has a naval presence anymore, and it's because, you know, spending--buying up land there isn't cost effective for the Navy.

CONAN: And, indeed, if you have land and could sell, that is cost effective. That's valuable...

Mr. SCHULTE: Absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

ED: ...(Unintelligible) compare this to an airport, that an airport is early construction in the life of a city, usually in low-cost razed land, and then a city builds out towards the airport and resents its being there. Would be a good approach to expect things to have a 30-year life and intend a death to bases?

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ED: Bye.

CONAN: And we would also like to thank Bret Schulte for his time today. We know that commission is still meeting. We appreciate you taking the time to join us.

ED: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bret Schulte is a staff writer for US News & World Report. He joined us by phone from his office here in Washington, DC.

More coverage of the BRAC commission findings and determinations later today on "All Things Considered."

Today, though, we say farewell to Vince Muse. I host the show, Sue Goodwin produces it, Vince drives the show every day. He's the technician who turns on my microphone, makes your phone calls sound good and keep his head when everything else goes wrong. After almost four years with us, listeners to "Morning Edition" will get the benefit of his ears starting tomorrow.

Vince, thank you. We'll miss you.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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