Leaders of the military branches yesterday heartily endorsed President Bush’s proposal to close more bases worldwide, including bases in U.S. communities where a defense facility means jobs and economic health.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the president already had endorsed what would be the fifth round of base closings since 1988 in submitting the fiscal 2002 defense budget to Congress on June 27.
The chiefs’ endorsement yesterday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee virtually assures that Congress this year will create a new, bipartisan commission to recommend a politically distasteful list of bases to be closed.
Under four previous commissions, three in the post-Cold War era, the law was written so Congress could only accept or reject the panels’ picks. In all four cases, Congress swallowed the medicine and let the Pentagon close scores of bases and smaller facilities, putting constituents out of work.
The Pentagon projects billions of dollars in long-term savings, money that is badly needed to replace aging aircraft and equipment worn out in a busy decade of peacekeeping and regional wars.
“The Air Force is overbased for the force structure we have today,” testified Gen. Michael Ryan, the branch’s chief of staff, answering a pointed question from committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
“We think that we can save significant amounts of money in the out years with a base closure,” Gen. Ryan said, estimating the Air Force has saved $5 billion from previous shutdowns. “So we emphatically support base closure.”
Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, said his service already has consolidated operations at its big bases. But he said some support facilities could be closed.
“I’ve always believed that one of the fundamental principles we should follow is that we shouldn’t pay a nickel for a structure we don’t need,” he told the committee.
Added Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, “The Army has excess capacity that we’ve carried, and we believe that a [commission] would help adjust that.”
The Clinton administration repeatedly asked a Republican-run Congress to approve a new base commission in the late 1990s. But Republican lawmakers refused, still angry over the Clinton White House’s attempts to meddle in a commission process that is supposed to be free of politics.
After White House aides unsuccessfully lobbied the 1995 commission to change its list of 79 closures, it in effect subverted the final product by funneling work to two depots that were supposed to close in voter-rich Texas and California.
Mr. Clinton took the unusual step of attacking the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, whose members the White House appointed and whose chairman was a former Democratic senator.
“There has been a calculated, deliberate attempt to turn this into a political thing and to obscure the real economic impact of their recommendations in San Antonio and California, which were made solely so they could put back a lot of other things,” an angry Mr. Clinton said before grudgingly accepting the closure list.
Republican defense staffers on Capitol Hill say that before Congress approves another closure round, they will want assurances that a new commission will be immune from such political attacks and meddling.
In presenting a $328.9 billion Pentagon budget to Congress on June 27, Mr. Rumsfeld said the administration wants a 25 percent reduction overall in the number of facilities, producing $3.5 billion in savings annually.
One base that may be a prime candidate for abandonment is the Navy facility at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. Mr. Bush has decided the Navy must leave its coveted training ground on Puerto Rico’s Vieques island. If Congress does not block Mr. Bush’s decision, the Navy may have little reason to keep open Roosevelt Roads.
“We absolutely need Roosevelt Roads if we’re in Vieques,” Adm. Clark testified yesterday. “And if we’re not in Vieques, it raises the question about how we put the whole structure together to train, organize, develop and deploy a task force. My posture is if I don’t need structure to get the task done, well, then my recommendation would be to not be supporting that kind of investment.”