Bases on the Butcher Block


There's a new, pungent odor wafting through the halls of Congress these days: the unfamiliar aroma of frying pork. After 11 years of political hemming and hawing, it looks like Congress is going to start closing obsolete military bases—in spite of bitter opposition from the congressional leadership.

The head chef for these festivities is Rep. Richard Armey (R–Tex.), a former economics professor. He cooked up a way to avoid the politics and environmental red tape that invariably surround the issue.

A bipartisan panel of experts, appointed by the Defense Secretary, will decide which of the 400 unneeded bases (out of 3,800 total installations) around the country should close. The president will then have an all-or-nothing choice of whether to go along with the list. If he approves, the bases close—unless Congress votes to cancel the entire project.

In this way, Armey's legislation insulates base closings from Washington's natural tendencies. Since all the bases are packaged together, a member of Congress can't persuade others to help save one base without necessarily saving all of them. Voting to save one base wouldn't put the heat on a member. But saving all of them would anger waste-conscious constituents.

In addition, the bill exempts base closings from environmental impact rules—stripping pork barrellers of their most potent delaying tactic, the perpetual study.

How could such a sensible approach work its way through Congress in the first place? "We had such incredibly good support from the press," Armey told Insight magazine. After placing guest editorials and speaking with editors, Armey persuaded most major papers to endorse the plan.

This media groundswell afforded newer members of Congress the opportunity to stick it to their senior colleagues, who viewed Armey's plan as a threat to committee discretion and power. The final House vote was 223 to 186, with Democrats joining Republicans to reject a watered-down version of the plan devised by the House leadership. (The Senate had previously approved the bill.)

Armey's efforts demonstrate how smart legislation and media finesse can shave fat from the federal budget. The pan's still hot. Will America ask for seconds?