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Weeding Out the Bases

Scattered across the United States are 3,800 military facilities--forts, posts, camps, depots and the like, many of which are important to national defense but hundreds of which contribute virtually nothing to protecting against enemies foreign or domestic. What is it that allows these marginal or redundant bases to go on surviving year after year and decade after decade, at a cost to taxpayers of between $2 billion to $5 billion annually? They endure for the simple reason that each, through jobs and direct purchases, channels money into local economies. This has made them politically untouchable. Congress, uniting in mutual self-protection, has refused to let the Pentagon close them down. And Congress itself has always lacked the stomach to decide which of its members should be forced to lose a facility beloved of constituents.

Now, seizing on one of those rare and cherished moments when it becomes possible for incumbents to do something controversial that is also politically cost-free, Congress has cleared the way for shutting down many useless military facilities. Granted, it did so by passing the buck, in this case to a commission appointed by Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci that is already compiling a hit list for base closings. That list must reach Carlucci by Dec. 31; he has little more than two weeks to accept or reject it. If he accepts it Congress has until late next April to vote its disapproval, with that vote being subject to a presidential veto. Otherwise the closing of the facilities begins in 1990.

The political charm of this arrangement is that any blame for what happens can be put on a commission that couldn’t care less about angry constituents, and on a defense secretary in a lame-duck Administration. The practical beauty of the approach is that it is a take-it-or-leave-it package. No one at any point in the process will have a line-item veto. No one can pick and choose among the commission’s choices.

So at long last something good and needed is about to be done. Should Congress be congratulated for its political courage? That would be a gross mischaracterization. Should it be accused simply of funking? That would be an unfair exaggeration. Say instead that here was a case where Congress acted expediently to end decades of shameful waste, happy in the knowledge that it could do so without inviting political retribution. That’s not quite an example of government at its noblest, but it’s a way of getting useful things done and that, in the end, is what government is all about.

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