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Pentagon Official Warns of More Base Closures

Military: Air Force secretary cites need to save money. Proposal to bypass Congress is unlikely to succeed but may prod lawmakers into action.

March 06, 1998|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Trying to force the issue of military base closures back on the public agenda, a top Pentagon official has proposed that the military act on its own to consolidate bases even if it means ignoring objections in Congress.

With lawmakers again balking at a new round of base consolidations, acting Air Force Secretary Whitten Peters warned recently in a speech that if lawmakers are not willing to take the political risks, the services can act on their own to shutter unneeded bases--a step that he said would be "the equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb" on affected communities because the closures could come without congressionally approved federal aid to soften them.

The consequences, he said, would be "truly ugly," including "runways left pockmarked, buildings which are run down, no economic redevelopment and no significant environmental cleanup."

Yet, Peters said, the military desperately needs the savings that would come from closing unneeded bases, not only to replace aging weapons but to reduce the strain on units at a time of continuing cutbacks and frequent overseas deployments.

The chances that the Pentagon would ever take such a defiant step are at best remote, given the intense countermeasures that Congress could apply. It is not clear, in fact, whether the Pentagon could close bases this way, given the procedural hurdles involved and the risk of an angry counterattack from members of Congress.

But the sudden emergence of the idea into public debate marks an escalation of the struggle between the Pentagon and members of Congress, who fear harsh political fallout from base closings.

At a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing this week, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the ranking minority member, said that he saw advantages in having the Pentagon work to close bases on its own, thus forcing Congress to react.

"It might be more honest if we went eyeball to eyeball with you," Inouye said.

Twice since 1988, Congress has taken the lead in base closings by setting up special commissions, with members chosen by the president, that follow procedures devised to limit both the political considerations and the political consequences of base shutdowns.

Under these procedures, the Pentagon devises a list and sends it to the commission for changes. That list is then sent to the president, who must accept or reject it in its totality or send it back. The final list he approves is sent to Congress and automatically becomes law unless Congress votes by a deadline to reject it.

But last summer, Congress, weary of the contentious issue, stifled an administration attempt to get a new commission off the ground. And many in Congress now say the odds are long against Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen's proposal for creation of a commission that would seek closures in 2001 and 2005.

Advocates of the direct approach may recall how Congress was prodded into action in 1990, when then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney threatened to start closing bases on his own authority. Cheney proposed to act in January 1990. By November, Congress had voted for a new commission.

"We have the legal authority," an aide to the Air Force secretary said Thursday.

In Congress, however, many say that action by the Pentagon is complex as a procedural matter and difficult as a practical matter.

Under legislation sponsored in 1977 by Cohen, then a Republican senator from Maine who was chafing at plans to close Loring Air Force Base in his home state, the Pentagon must submit a full list of bases it intends to close in the budget proposal of the previous year. The Pentagon must then conduct a series of studies on environmental and economic effects and submit them to Congress before it carries out the closures.

These requirements force delay and open ample opportunities for unhappy members of Congress to challenge the plans.

"Any member would be able to block [a Pentagon proposal]," said Bill Johnson, legislative director for Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah). Peters is "venting a certain amount of frustration, and we're sympathetic. But he's being provocative, and I don't think he's helping his cause."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that she "regretted" Peters' comments. "I think the effect is somewhat ballistic, and what we don't need is more heat on this issue," she said, adding that she would oppose further closures in California in at least the next round.

Erik Pages, of Business Executives for National Security, a group that advocates base closings, said the suggestion of unilateral closings amounts to a "game of chicken" between the Pentagon and Congress.

"There's some brinksmanship here," he said. "But it's indicative of how strongly they feel about this. They think they've got their backs against the wall."

He said military officers are worried that expenses of the Bosnia and Persian Gulf deployments will be taken out of their acquisition budgets. The cost of keeping the expanded deployment of U.S. forces in the Middle East, for example, has cost more than $600 million since November.

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