- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Recently, Defense Secretary William Cohen, for the fourth straight year, requested from Congress the authority to conduct additional base closure rounds. As in years past, the secretary's request had a conspicuous pro forma quality to it, as if he knew the point was moot, but would ask anyway.

While the secretary would have the casual observer believe that Congress is at fault, no one should overlook the fact that Congress authorized four base closure and realignment (BRAC) rounds from 1988 to 1995. Doing so was not easy, especially when the potential loss of hundreds or thousands of constituent jobs are at stake. Nevertheless, the Congress did just that, knowing that excess infrastructure drained limited defense dollars away from readiness, modernization, and research and development accounts.

In 1995, the administration fundamentally compromised what had been a workable and mutually acceptable base closure process through its unilateral decision to privatize two enormous Air Force logistics centers in Texas and California, electoral states critical to the president's re-election. It was only after the 1995 round was overtly politicized and manipulated that Congress closed the door on subsequent base closure authority.

At the same time, one of the least sound recommendations on the 1995 closure list was unfolding at the Army's Aviation and Troop Command (ATCOM) in St. Louis. Based on firsthand experience with this action, the Army's handling of the ATCOM closure stands out as a prime example of shoddy analysis and compromised integrity.

Consider the following:

• The Army estimated the cost of disestablishing ATCOM and relocating most of its operations to Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and three other installations, at $119 million. At last count, however, as the installation's leadership clamped down on the flow of information, the cost had escalated to nearly $245 million. In the private sector, executives would be sacked for malfeasance on this scale.

• The Army arbitrarily estimated that only 25 percent of ATCOM's work force would relocate, and failed to budget even dollar one for that purpose. When all was said and done, just as the St. Louis delegation had predicted, nearly 65 percent of the downsized mid-career work force of 2,300 chose to relocate.

• The Army's Manpower Assessment Agency sent a 15-person team to St. Louis for six weeks in mid-1996 to review the base closure decision with instructions "to generate data to support the closure recommendation." However, the team found the Army's case so flawed it forwarded a recommendation almost diametrically opposed to the position it was sent to defend.

• And even more difficult to believe, the Army failed even to consider the possibility that a downsized ATCOM work force could be moved into Army-owned facilities only a few blocks away and at a total cost of $15.5 million.

In short, there are significant lessons to be learned from this unfortunate chapter that would serve well both the Congress and the department when establishing the ground rules in new legislation for future base closures.

It is highly unlikely Congress will grant authority for additional base closures to this secretary or the next unless the legislation incorporates fundamental changes. These should include the following:

(1) The process must be transparent.

(2) All information, to include economic models and installation costs employed to develop and analyze closure recommendations, must be disclosed in a full and timely manner by the department.

(3) Subsequent closure rounds must include a strategic installations plan that makes clear how individual closure recommendations fit into a coherent long-term plan.

(4) A genuinely independent assessment team must oversee and review all appeals presented by congressional delegations opposing specific closure recommendations.

(5) And the appeals process must explicitly allow for the removal of individual installations based on merit.

Absent such changes, it is difficult even to imagine Congress would grant the secretary new base closure authority. For the base closure process to work, the administration and Congress must be in complete agreement concerning both the spirit and the letter of the law. Only then will the base closure process again be possessed of some measure of integrity.

Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Readiness.

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