Monday, May 23, 2005

It’s officially called the Department of Defense, but to many politicians, the label misstates its function. Judging from their reaction to proposed base closures, they’d like to rename it the Department of Jobs, Pork, Community Uplift and Incumbent Protection. That way, no one would get distracted by the petty business of protecting America.

Recently, the Pentagon released a list of proposed realignments in U.S. military facilities, from Maine to Hawaii. The plan calls for shutting 33 major installations and shrinking 29 more, which would streamline operations and save nearly $50 billion over the next 20 years.

But elected officials representing areas that would be adversely affected showed little interest in whether the changes would reduce costs, improve operations or cure cancer. They preferred to focus on the overriding issue: their states or districts would lose federal jobs and dollars that they assumed to be a birthright.

From Capitol Hill came piteous lamentations and promises to resist. Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, said he and others in the state’s congressional delegation would “push every single button we can to get the right decision.” Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, accused the Pentagon of deciding “to dramatically neglect the northeastern United States.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said the proposed closure of a submarine base in his state “is cruel and unusual punishment that Connecticut does not deserve and our national security cannot afford.”

But if Connecticut doesn’t deserve it, two questions arise: 1) What state does? and 2) Who cares? This is not a task on the order of cutting a birthday cake for 6-year-olds, where fairness demands that everyone get an equal share. Fairness should be irrelevant when it comes to national defense.

Suspicions arose that politics, not security, may have determined which states get the shaft. But if the administration is trying to reward its friends and punish its enemies, it’s going about it in a strange way. True, Texas would gain jobs in the realignment — but not as many as Maryland, a true-blue state with two Democratic senators that President Bush lost by 13 percentage points in 2004. Massachusetts, home of John Kerry, also came out ahead.

Plenty of people in Republican states must be wondering what happened to the spoils of victory. Alaska, which is more consistently Republican than the Bush family, would lose more than 4,600 jobs. Red states like Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina are among those slated for sizable job cuts.

Missouri, which twice went for Mr. Bush, would be one of the big losers. Residents may be reflecting on the insight of their own Mark Twain, who wrote, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

Last year, Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist went to South Dakota and pledged to use his influence to save Ellsworth Air Force Base if voters would replace his Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle, with Republican John Thune. South Dakotans did as requested. But when the closure list came out, Ellsworth was on it.

The apparent subordination of political concerns doesn’t mean all the changes are sound. But it at least means the people drafting the list were asking the right questions. And as a general matter, the military has a better sense of what it needs to do its job than, say, a random member of Congress, who is likely to be motivated by narrow concerns like getting re-elected.

It would be too much to expect politicians to defer to the expertise of the Pentagon. But it shouldn’t be too much for them to hold their fire until they hear why the department made the recommendations it did, instead of rushing to the microphones to spew denunciations. It would also have been refreshing to hear even one member of Congress say that her constituents would stoically accept these sacrifices in the interest of national security. Instead, 11 senators, led by Mr. Thune, are co-sponsoring a bill to delay the entire round of closures.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, national security is what the base-closing process is about. Contrary to the prevailing impression on Capitol Hill, the only criterion is whether the changes will make us safer while economizing tax dollars.

If the plan achieves that goal, it will be an excellent thing for all Americans — something most of them probably know, despite what their elected representatives say. Even in the dramatically neglected northeastern United States, I suspect, staying alive is the highest priority.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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