Base Closing Plans Face Uphill Battle
Lawmakers question savings
San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 2001, p. A4
WASHINGTON If President Bush really wants to mothball more military bases, he'll have to win over some folks who should already be in his camp military-minded Republican members of Congress.
The Bush administration, looking to free up some money, said in its proposed 2002 budget last month that the military has a 23 percent surplus of bases. "It is clear that new rounds of base closures will be necessary to shape the military more efficiently," the administration said.
The budget summary did not specify the number of rounds or the estimated savings, but dozens of bases could be on the chopping block given that the nation now has about 450 major bases and the previous four rounds of closings hit an average of two dozen each.
"It depends on how much they want to do and how much they can prove to me that they've saved" from past closures, said new House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump. The Arizona Republican said he doesn't believe the government has saved money, and even his own vote is not certain.
Past closings have cost taxpayers more than $13 billion in cleanups, he said, and the closings are unfair to military retirees who move to base towns largely to gain access to their promised lifetime health care.
Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., the new chairman of the committee's military installations and facilities panel, said he detected "very, very scant support for additional closures."
In addition to questionable cost savings, Saxton said, "There are real questions about what our needs for basing are in the United States in the future."
Democrats are also raising concerns about more closures.
"The easy ones are gone, the easy ones are closed," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri the Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, who is reluctant to support new closings. "I know he (Bush) may ask for it, but even if he gets it, it will be a very slow payoff."
When the Clinton administration last March sought two more rounds of base closings, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen told Congress they would save $3 billion a year from 2008 to 2015.
Like the three previous years, Congress rejected the proposal, largely due to anger over President Bill Clinton's special treatment in 1995 of two Air Force bases in politically critical states McClellan near Sacramento and Kelly in Texas.
Rather than simply closing those bases, as the independent base closing commission created by Congress proposed, Clinton called for privatizing their civilian jobs to ease the economic impact.
"With the base closing commission, the whole process was, 'Hey take it or leave it, the whole thing,' and he didn't comply with that," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla. "So he lost credibility with Congress, and we said he's not going to get another round."
McClellan and Kelly are closing this year, having taken the six years allowed by law to clear out.
Despite the wariness expressed by some prominent Republicans, GOP leaders predicted Congress will pass a base-closing bill.
Base Closing Facts
Past base closings, according to the Defense Department:
- Of the 97 major bases closed, 16 were ordered in 1988; 26 in 1991; 28 in 1993, and 27 in 1995.
- So far, 28 states in Guam have had major base closures. California, which has the most bases, also has lost the most: 24. Texas lost seven; Pennsylvania six; Illinois and New York five each; and Florida, Indiana, Maryland and Virginia four apiece.
- The two Air Force bases scheduled to close the military side while privatizing the civilian side are McClellan in Sacramento (closing in April) and Kelly in San Antonio (closing this summer).