James Courter, chairman of the third and most recent commission on military base closings, was wont to open each meeting of his seven-member panel with words of encouragement, sometimes sounding suspiciously like entreaties. The commission, Courter insisted, was engaged in something just and even noble. It was not, as some would suggest, a heartless Grim Reaper come to snatch away the jobs and lives of innocent, hard-toiling Americans.
A tangible reward of American triumph at the end of the Cold War, base closings will benefit Americans, Courter repeatedly told the dozens of reporters standing by to beam the bad news back home. "Their preciously earned money," he said, "large gobs of which are appropriated by the federal government, will be used for the essential things, rather than squandered."
The scribblers would usually pause for a rest at these words of the former Republican congressman from New Jersey, whose appointment was one of George Bush's last official acts. Courter always seemed to speak in error-free sentences of multiple dependent clauses that were difficult to grab hold of without a tape recorder. And of course the real news was which base would close and which would stay open, not some amorphous greater social good that flowed from the process.
Perhaps the cynical scribes were right to ignore Courter's standard speech. In fact, large gobs of taxpayers' precious earnings will continue to be squandered, if not on obsolete military bases, then on warmed-over schemes for "defense conversion," "worker retraining," "high technology infrastructure investment," and other plots of Clintonites and old-fashioned Capitol Hill politicians.
If the base-closing process illustrated anything, it was Congress's complete incapacity to cut spending, no matter how obsolete, redundant, or wasteful. That the commission structure was even in place to handle the job of dismantling America's Cold War military machine was due more to accident than foresight. It was first devised by Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey as a way to circumvent the political paralysis that prevented Congress from closing anything—from San Francisco's country-clubby Presidio, established by the Spaniards 217 years ago, to a 19th-century Utah fort founded by the U.S. cavalry to guard stagecoach routes against Indian attacks.
Politicians whose bases were threatened blitzed the commission and anyone else who felt obliged to listen with endless faxes, letters, studies, and phone calls. "We did things that Congress institutionally is not capable of doing," Courter said wearily as the commission wrapped up its work. He noted that the panel was so bold as to close an unfinished reserve facility in West Virginia, the place that Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd seems bent on paving over with federal construction projects.
Yet for all the anguished tallies of job losses, the Pentagon estimates that by the year 2000 the three rounds of base closings, in 1988, 1991, and 1993, will save $5.6 billion annually, hardly a blip on Congress's fiscal screen. Indeed, the day President Clinton accepted the independent commission's recommendations, he announced a five-year, $5-billion aid package for militarily stricken communities.
It wasn't more than a day or two after the commission finished voting that the California congressional delegation, led by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, announced its plan for getting its hands on any "defense conversion" money. Robert D. Stuart Jr., the aged commissioner who turned out to be less befuddled and more focused on saving taxpayers' money than any of his fellows, observed that "those who have been least supportive of the defense budget are the ones that have protested the loudest when we have closed their bases."
For years, California politicos had crowed about how much defense money they had managed to retrieve from Washington. They took credit freely and conversely felt their fates personally tied to any base losses. None even bothered to notice that the Navy, having avoided major closures in 1988 and 1991, would take the biggest hits this time around; ergo, California, with its long coastline and its natural concentration of naval installations, would stand to be among the biggest losers.
Nor did the shrieks of woe from politicians pleading for the commission to cut anywhere but in their backyards include any admission that they had anything to do with the decision to close. Looking at the effect of state air-quality regulations on the McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, one commission staffer wryly wondered aloud whether the state regulations would require "battery-powered airplanes." "Diversity" and "day care" concerns, however, were no joking matter for any one. The commission saved a day-care center at the Monterey Presidio Annex, even though Monterey city officials pointed out that the remaining Defense Language Institute was already served by two other government day-care centers.
Commissioner Harry McPherson, a lifelong Democrat, on one afternoon contradicted his insistence just hours earlier that the Defense Department "is not a social service agency." He convinced the commission to keep open a naval supply center in Oakland, despite closure of the Alameda Naval Air Station it served, because the center is "a prime place for blacks" to get well-paying blue collar jobs.
McPherson, who had served in the Johnson administration, said he had been moved by the story of retired Adm. Robert Toney. Toney, whom McPherson somewhat mysteriously called "an ebony black," had begun his naval career shining shoes in front of the supply center. He is currently executive director of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. McPherson seemed happily oblivious to any patronizing connotations. Perhaps one should be grateful that no one found it necessary to refer to "ivory white" generals or "amber yellow" commanders.
A recent study by the Rand Corporation, the Santa Monica think tank that specializes in defense matters, noted that the decline in defense spending since its peak in 1987 has been "modest compared to the declines we saw after the Korean and Vietnam wars," not to mention World War II, when as a matter of course the nation dismantled its military. Nor, said the study, is the economic dislocation associated with the current round of cuts large compared with other recent economic changes. The rise in the value of the dollar between 1980 and 1986, Rand found, caused a drop in U.S. exports equal to 5 percent of gross domestic product, "a shock to the economy ten times larger than what we have seen so far as a consequence of reduced defense spending."
For all the grandstanding, however, one could not help but sympathize with the politicians who felt their futures hinged on keeping defense dollars flowing to their constituents. "A job lost seems to have much more impact on human lives than the two jobs that may be gained further down the road," Courter said. "People know instinctively that that could be the case, but they also know that the two jobs that are created may not mean one for them." A rousing cheer rose up from a huge hangar—full of blue collar workers at McClellan when Sacramento Democrats Vic Fazio and Robert Matsui joined California's Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in a celebration at the spared base. There were heartfelt gratitude and pride on both sides that thousands of men and women and their families found their jobs once again secure.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who was among the most vigorous of the base defenders, answered with great spirit when asked if perhaps she might be taking her efforts to save Alameda to extremes. "What would you rather have me do?" she asked. "Just roll over and say OK, this is wonderful? I don't believe it is, I don't believe it's right, I don't believe it's necessary, I don't believe it's cost-effective, and I am speaking out and saying that. And that's exactly what I was elected to do, and that is what the people want me to do."
And in that—for all those precious gobs of anonymous taxpayer dollars that may never be returned to create an invisible private-sector job even if every base in the country is closed—she may well be right.
Contributing Editor Carolyn Lochhead is Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Washington: Base Motives".