Panel Votes on Base Closings, Restructuring
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
At stake today: thousands of jobs, millions of taxpayer dollars and the restructuring of the armed forces. The Base Closure and Realignment Commission, known as the BRAC commission, has started several days of voting. It's deciding whether to close or restructure hundreds of military bases and sites across the country. Today the panel endorsed many of the Defense Department's recommendations, but it overruled the Pentagon on some of its biggest requests, voting to keep open major bases in New England. Coming up, we'll hear from some of the winners and losers in this process. First, NPR's Eric Westervelt has an overview.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Base-closing recommendations for New England were among the most contentious issues facing the BRAC commission. Today the commissioners defied the Pentagon and voted to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the Maine-New Hampshire border. It's a major regional economic anchor and source of some 4,500 local jobs. The panel also rejected the Pentagon's proposal and voted to keep open the big Navy submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, saving nearly 8,000 jobs. Republican Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell.
Governor JODI RELL (Republican, Connecticut): I'm thrilled. I am thrilled, and we won and we did it. We proved our case and the commissioners listened, and I think that's the most important thing.
WESTERVELT: New England did not, however, come out unscathed. In another Pentagon reversal, the panel voted to close rather than restructure the naval air station in Brunswick, Maine.
Pentagon leaders see this latest round of base closings as vital to the continued transformation of the Cold War military into a more agile force better prepared for future threats. The Pentagon also projects that this BRAC round will save taxpayers some $49 billion over 20 years, a figure the Government Accountability Office has disputed. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the long list is part of an historic chance to reset the force.
Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Department of Defense): It's in the interest of the taxpayers of America. It's in the interest of the United States armed forces. These are all recommendations that they produced; they didn't come out of midair. And there wasn't an ounce of politics in any aspect of it.
WESTERVELT: But it appears today that the commissioners heard the intense lobbying campaign by New England political, civic and other leaders. The groups made economic and strategic arguments to keep the bases open. By the end of the commission's three days of voting, if history is any guide, they will endorse 85 percent of the Pentagon's recommendations. But in this first post-September 11th BRAC round, with American forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, history may not prove a useful guide.
Mr. JEREMIAH GERTLER (Former BRAC Analyst): There's a good chance that this commission will overturn more of the recommendations than we've seen traditionally.
WESTERVELT: Jeremiah Gertler was the commission's senior analyst during the last base closure round in 1995. He says so far the commission is proving its independence.
Mr. GERTLER: The members of this commission, much more than their predecessors, have been very outspoken. They clearly have questions about whether they will save as much money as the department projects if these recommendations are approved.
WESTERVELT: And Gertler says commissioners continue to question the strategic logic of some Pentagon proposals. Heightened fears of terrorism and US troops in harm's way have added to the usual concerns about job loss. Indeed, BRAC commissioner James Hill today said as much in voting to save a major depot in Texas, which repairs Army Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Mr. JAMES HILL (Member, Base Realignment and Closure Commission): At this time of the nation being at war, this is exactly the wrong time to be closing Red River Army Depot.
WESTERVELT: The panel voted to keep Red River open, but Texas took a hit when, as recommended, the panel voted to close the naval station in Ingleside. The panel also voted to close a naval station in Mississippi, several bases in Georgia and installations in New Jersey, Mississippi and Virginia.
A federal study in the mid-'90s showed that after short-term economic pain, the majority of towns affected by base closings eventually recover. David Williams is with Citizens Against Government Waste.
Mr. DAVID WILLIAMS (Citizens Against Government Waste): The transition period is never easy for these areas. But we have found that after five to 10 years the economic activity really does increase and there's increased output. There's actually more jobs that are on these parcels of land with the private sector rather than with a military base.
WESTERVELT: After this week's voting, the panel's recommendations move on to the president next month and then to Congress. The president has one opportunity to send the list back for possible changes. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.
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