The Politics of Closing Popular Military Bases: Pass the Political Buck : Pentagon: List of posts marked for extinction doesn't pick on California, but a voter-proof panel won't make affected communities think so.

Larry Liebert is editor of the defense and foreign-policy section at Congressional Quarterly magazine. He has written extensively about California politics.

Neighbors of Ft. Ord should start imagining life without their Army base. So should the communities that have grown accustomed to the Long Beach Naval Station and the Sacramento Army Depot and the remainder of the 11 California facilities that made Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's hit list of military bases recommended for closure. There's no harm in wishing for a miracle, and no reason not to fight for a reprieve. But communities trying to save local bases should have no illusions about their likely demise.

On the Monterey Peninsula, where the loss of Ft. Ord would cost 15,000 military and 7,000 civilian jobs, Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), whose district includes the base, is helping his constituents fight the good fight. "People in the area understand that it isn't just a threat but a real possibility," said Panetta. "It helps to organize the community so they're not only looking at trying to make the best case before the commission but, more importantly, to look at the alternatives we want to explore so the area will be able to come back."

Neighbors who cling to the fragile possibility of rescuing bases marked for extinction would do well to understand the evolution of the base-closing process.

On April 21, when Cheney announced his plans to close 31 major bases and 12 smaller ones across the country, he was not simply expressing his own opinion. Nor was he issuing an edict. Rather, he was setting in motion elaborate machinery created by Congress to close military bases with ruthless efficiency and a strong resistance to political counterpressures. In effect, the process is designed to protect Congress from its own "pork-barrel" instincts to advance parochial interests over the greater good.

That's precisely what a few members of Congress, led by Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas), has in mind when they came up with the idea of a base-closing commission. Legislation creating the first one passed in 1988, and the panel went about its deliberations behind closed doors at the Pentagon.

In 1989, the commission proposed closing all or part of 91 bases, 16 of them major. Communities losing bases organized rallies, circulated petitions and even filed lawsuits. Their representatives in Congress convened hearings and demanded investigations. But the system worked as intended. Having provided itself only an all-or-nothing chance to block the entire base-closing list, Congress chose not to do so. The House voted, 361-43, to let the closings proceed.

At the time, some members expressed confidence that the ordeal of closing bases was behind them for years to come. Others said they hoped for a respite from such government-by-commission.

But pressures to close more bases quickly grew.

With the Pentagon pressed to cut back because of the end of the Cold War and the persistence of huge federal deficits, Cheney proposed another round of base closings on Jan. 29, 1990. This time, however, there was no commission in place to cushion the blow, and many Democrats accused Cheney of producing a politically tilted list that hit hardest at bases in communities represented by Democratic House members.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said sarcastically that Cheney met with officials "at the Republican National Committee and came up with a political list.'

Cheney and President George Bush vehemently denied any such political tilt. But the President eagerly and immediately set about using the base-closing dispute as evidence that Democrats who called for reduced defense spending were being hypocritical.

In the defense authorization bill for fiscal 1991, Congress barred Cheney from moving ahead with his list of base closures and arranged instead for a reincarnation of the base-closing commission.

This time, the procedures called for Cheney to propose the list of bases--which he did last week. Although some Democrats have again accused Cheney of targeting their party's strongholds, others have said they do not see partisanship at work. "They could arrive at the conclusion they did without any partisan tilt on it," Panetta said.

Statistics on the partisan effects of Cheney's list are inconclusive. The House Armed Services Committee estimated 58% of the bases closed would be in the districts of Democratic House members, nearly identical to the party's percentage of House seats. But the committee also calculated that 82% of all the civilian jobs to be eliminated in Cheney's plan would come from bases located in Democratic districts.

Nor do all the political effects fall along party lines. The heavy hit that Cheney's list would exact on California--nearly 27,000 military and civilian jobs in all--provides a particularly great political challenge not to a Democrat but to John Seymour, the state's newly appointed Republican senator.

Seymour, who'll face the voters next year, has not only promised to fight for Ft. Ord but has also taken some credit for persuading Cheney not to include the Alameda Naval Air Station on this year's hit list.

"The East Bay community made a compelling case for the facility, both for its role in our nation's defense and its importance to the community," Seymour said in one of a spate of press releases he issued on the base closings. "I made sure that their case was heard at the very top."

Now, the list is in the hands of the base-closing commission, whose chairman is Jim Courter, a former Republican congressman who quit the House in 1990 to run unsuccessfully for New Jersey governor. Most of the other seven commission appointees are corporate executives or retired Pentagon officials.

Unlike the previous base-closing commission, this one is to hold public hearings before sending a revised list of recommendations to Bush by July 1. Once again, Congress has bound itself to accept or reject the entire list once the President accepts a final version.

This procedure guarantees a frenzied spring and summer of lobbying by communities and their representatives in Congress, who will besiege the commission with pleas that their bases are worthy of salvation.

In the end, it will all depend on whether the base-closing commissioners find serious flaws in Cheney's recommendations. Some members of Congress predict the commission will find at least a few bases to exempt simply to demonstrate their independence.

"We have the opportunity to make our case before a commission that isn't necessarily going to be a rubber stamp for the secretary of defense," Panetta said. "They are not just going to accept whatever the Pentagon hands them. They have their own credibility at stake. But it is also not likely there is going to be that much revision."

There is another possibility that may come as a shock to communities all over the country that rejoiced when their local bases were omitted from Cheney's hit list: The commission just might add its own candidates for closure to the roster.

Panetta said Courter told him that "they weren't just going to look at this list alone but they were going to look beyond it. They want to get some independent judgment here."

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