COMMENTARY ON BASE CLOSURES : Considering Real Cost of Shuttering El Toro Marine Station : Orange County residents should support Clinton's proposal only if it benefits taxpayers and national security.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) represents the 47th Congressional District, which includes the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Amid the cacophonous consternation about the possible closing of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, three questions loom large. First, who put El Toro on the closure list? Second, why is this happening? And third, what should be done about it?

Whose Idea Is This, Anyway?

The decision to close El Toro was made by the Clinton Administration. Clinton's Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, sent his proposals for closure on to the independent Base Closure Commission, which will now review his work.

The Bush Administration did not propose the closure of El Toro. Orange County's congressional delegation did not propose this. The governor of California did not propose this. The Clinton Administration did.

Why Is This Happening?

One of the few recommendations of the cost-cutting Grace Commission that was actually enacted into law is the base closure process. Recognizing that funding for military bases was too often driven by hometown pressure for pork, Congress acquiesced in a procedure that is designed to close unneeded bases. Like Ulysses tying himself to the mast, the Congress--knowing it could not resist the siren song of parochial interests--designed a procedure to protect themselves and America from their own passions.

As chairman of the congressional Grace Caucus, I was pleased to see the passage of this reform. But the ingenious Grace Commission base-closure process is just a framework. It does not inform decisions of how much should be spent on the military. Congress still controls the purse strings, and the overall level of funding it provides still determines how many bases must be closed in the aggregate. Obviously, even if the base-closure process is a good idea, its results may prove unwise if military funding is cut so deeply that essential and cost-effective bases get chucked out with the wasteful ones.

The Clinton base closure list proposes shutting down 31 bases--more than double the 1991 Bush list. That is because the force structure dictated by the radically reduced Pentagon budget essentially requires closing that many more bases.

Between 1985 and 1992, Congress cut defense spending by 29%. That is, more than one-quarter of our military infrastructure was erased, only some of it in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. On top of this, the Clinton campaign blithely called for eliminating an additional $60 billion. Now, President Clinton's budget makes $127 billion in further cuts--more than doubling his own irresponsible campaign pledge.

The net result of the Draconian Clinton cuts will be a military one-half its size during the Reagan Administration. But Clinton's plans to halve the American military have come with no analysis of the consequences. No one in the Clinton Administration, or in Congress, has made any effort to rationalize such wholesale cuts in the face of instability in the former Soviet Union, World Trade Center-type terrorist attacks, and North Korean nuclear threats.

The new House Armed Services Committee chairman, Ronald V. Dellums, has long protested the American military. Naturally, he supports the $127-billion Clinton cuts. So do both of the San Francisco Democrats in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Given their support for such irresponsible defense spending cuts, nothing has been more galling than the picture of Boxer, Feinstein and Dellums protesting base closures in California. While winning rave reviews from a gullible and fawning national media for their efforts to "save" bases, they have, as recently as last week, voted to sustain the full force of the Clinton defense cuts.

Technically, El Toro is under threat of closure because of the base-closing process. In fact, however, the slashing of defense is the driving force behind proposals to shut down such essential facilities as El Toro.

What Should Be Done About It?

Someone has got to rationalize the largely irrational cuts in national defense being advanced by the Clintonites. General Walter Boomer, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told me that if he is required by political pressure to keep open all of the Corps' current bases, the Marines will have no money left for personnel, training, or equipment--leaving us with a "hollow force" incapable of fighting.

To be sure, the Marine Corps base at El Toro is an Orange County landmark, a boon to our local economy, and a source of pride to all of us. But even taken together, these are not sufficient reasons for maintenance of a base. Rather, the fundamental purpose of El Toro is to assist in the protection of the nation. So long as it wisely fulfills that function, we in Orange County can remain the happy beneficiaries of all the rest.

Orange Countians should support the closure of El Toro only if it is demonstrated that to do so will benefit taxpayers and the national security. Two years ago, when the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station was placed on the closure list, I was one of only two congressmen in America to support the closure of a base in his district. I did this because it made military and economic sense. Thus far, however, the Pentagon has failed to provide sufficient data on the proposed El Toro closure to permit an intelligent conclusion on these parameters. In the meantime, our operating presumption must be that, unless there are demonstrable cost savings and logistic efficiencies from closure, El Toro should remain open. No one--even in the Clinton Administration--questions the military importance of the 3rd Air Wing now headquartered at El Toro. We must, therefore, ask ourselves whether that mission can be performed more efficiently and cost effectively at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, as proposed by the Clinton Administration.

The Marine Corps, faced with even more radical reductions in their operations budget in the coming years of the Clinton budget, supports the consolidation of both the Tustin and El Toro operations at Miramar because it will help them stretch ever-more scarce defense dollars. Since the move need not be completed until 1999, they say, Orange County will have more than half a decade to adjust.

In the last few days, however, I have obtained detailed economic data from the Marine Corps that shows it will cost almost $1 billion just to pay for these relocations. The Corps is still in the process of providing me supporting data for the claimed $1.3 billion in costs that will be avoided as a result of the moves. I will continue to press for release of these facts, because they are essential for the public to reach a sound judgment.

Ironically, however, it has been those who rushed to judgment without any reference to facts who have thus far carried the day. Defense Secretary Aspin, and even President Clinton, readily heeded the purely political bleating of Feinstein and Boxer--to the dismay of Democrats more serious about defense, such as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Aspin went so far as to refuse to meet with a single Republican whose district was affected by a base closure, while granting ready and exclusive access to members of the Democratic party. El Toro remained on the Clinton list for closure in part because his Administration would not hear from those who represent the base.

Now, what remaining chance Orange County has to keep El Toro open rests with the Base Closure Commission. They will most certainly be underwhelmed by arguments based solely on local economics, without serious reference to the national security implications. In the days ahead--if the forthcoming data proves to support this--we must show why maintaining El Toro is in the best interests of both Orange County and the national security. Only by insisting on public release of all of the Pentagon's thus-far confidential justifications for the Clinton proposal can we hope to do this.

Finally, we should offer a prayer of goodwill for our two Democratic senators, as well as for all others who must make a judgment on the fate of El Toro: May they be granted the courage to give up military pork, even in California; the strength to fight for a truly strong national defense; and the wisdom to know the difference.

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