Features

Base motives

Politics | Principles become casualties in the fight to preserve military installations

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

In early May, Department of Defense officials released a plan that would massively reorder American military operations in the nation and around the world. It also meant that new South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has the inauspicious but potentially rewarding task of saving Ellsworth Air Force Base-his state's second largest employer-from closing. If Mr. Thune thought the Bush administration would spare Ellsworth because he knocked off administration foe and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, he was wrong.

Pentagon officials, under direction from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have recommended closing 33 major bases and realigning 29 more. There are big bases on the list (Ellsworth), famous bases (the Groton Sub Base), and beloved ones (the Walter Reed Medical Center). Small ones, too. More than 100 smaller military installations, including National Guard and Reserve posts, are slated to close as well. The moves, which would begin in 2006 and continue for six years, would save the military up to $50 billion over 20 years, Mr. Rumsfeld says, and would help the American armed services to "give way to the new demands of the war against extremism and other evolving 21st century challenges."

But the proposals haven't played well in Washington, where lobbyists, advocates, and politicians have all turned their attention to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) as it holds hearings about the Pentagon's recommendations. The political ramifications seem so real for congressmen and senators that they're sacrificing political philosophy. Democrats who, like John Kerry in the 1980s, opposed expanding the scope of the military now oppose pruning when it happens in their district or state. Republicans who crusade against government waste fight to keep pork alive back home.

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If Mr. Kerry had his way, the F-15 never would have flown from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. The Massachusetts senator and 2004 presidential contender railed against new weapons systems like the F-15 fighter in 1984. But more than two decades later, the Democratic senator is rallying to stop the Pentagon's plans to shut down Otis, leaving some to think Mr. Kerry's newfound love of the F-15 came when they flew into Massachusetts.

Mr. Thune campaigned with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) outside of Ellsworth Air Force Base in 2004, promising that a vote for Mr. Thune would be a vote to keep open Ellsworth, home of the nation's B-1 bombers. Ellsworth "plays a critical role in the war on terror every day," Mr. Thune said in a statement after the BRAC list included the massive North and South Dakota base. The Department of Defense disagrees. Mr. Rumsfeld maintains these bases need to close so the United States can better concentrate its forces to fight a war on terror.

How much can Mr. Thune do to save Ellsworth? Not much, it appears. The future of the bases on the list will be decided by BRAC's nine-person commission, which includes former congressmen, retired military officers, and defense contractors. The commission has until September to amend the list and send it to President Bush. From there, the president sends it to Congress, or returns the list to the commission with his own recommendations. Congress can only vote for or against the recommendations slate, not change them in any way. The list then returns to the president for his signature. Lobbyists and congressmen may find it difficult to exert much political force to spare hometown bases. In the past four base closing cycles, the commission has only modified 15 percent of the Pentagon's proposals.

And for many communities, there's the cold reality: Bases will close, jobs will leave, and the community will be left to pick up the pieces.

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