Politics haunt base closure process
WASHINGTON - The upcoming round of military base closings must be "untarnished by political influence," Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole declared. Then she put in a plug for her own state.
North Carolina "supports a unique military infrastructure," prime for expansion not closure, Dole told the head of the commission that will review Pentagon proposals for which bases to shut.
Base closures have enormous political ramifications. No matter the political party, House and Senate members have a lot to lose if hometown bases shut down and voters blame the lawmakers for disappearing jobs.
In February, a New Hampshire group visiting Washington sent a clear message to potential presidential candidates during private meetings with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona, and Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
Officials with the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce stressed the importance of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to New Hampshire's economy. The implied point: The facility's closure could hurt the chances of anyone who runs for president in 2008.
"It was innocent. We didn't make any threats or anything like that," said Dick Ingram, the group's director. "But the reality is that we do have the first-in-the-nation primary, and folks that want to be running for president take a special interest in what matters around here. So, we'd be fools not to use the moment."
The Pentagon originally estimated that it had up to 25 percent more space than it needed at its more than 400 domestic facilities, though Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently suggested the surplus probably will be less given that 70,000 troops from overseas are returning soon to the United States.
Previous closure rounds eliminated or realigned 451 installations, including 97 major ones.
In an effort to limit political influence on the process, a nine-member commission - chosen by the White House and congressional leaders - works independently to vet the Pentagon list.
Still, Chris Kelley Cimko, who worked on base-closing commissions in the 1990s, said, "It's very, very hard to divorce yourself from the politics. You have to be very strong."
Commission Chairman Anthony Principi has pledged that his panel will be independent, fair and free of political influence.
"National security will be our highest priority," he told lawmakers last month. "I believe that if we politicize this process, we will only increase the level of cynicism around the country and really doom it to failure."
He acknowledged in a written questionnaire to the Senate Armed Services Committee that one of his challenges will be ensuring "all commissioners and staff remain impartial and avoid political pressure and conflicts of interest."
Administration aides say President Bush has been clear that national security - not politics - should dictate which bases are closed.
Lobbyists working to save bases note, though, that most commission members have ties to the Bush administration, raising the question of just how independent it will be. Principi, for one, was the head of the Veterans' Affairs Department during Bush's first term.
Vice President Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary during previous closures, wanted Principi as chairman. Some lobbyists say they suspect Cheney is intimately involved in the process and could influence the commissioners - a fear administration aides say is unfounded.
The Pentagon also has more power than before over which bases to shut. The Senate voted in 2003 make it more difficult for the commission to change the list.
Last year, Congress reluctantly authorized the closures under a veto threat by the White House. Now, Republicans and Democrats alike can be heard grumbling about them.
Privately, Democrats worry that the closures may be used as a political weapon aimed at hurting vulnerable members of their party seeking re-election. But publicly, they brush aside the suggestion, mindful that the Pentagon hasn't finalized its list.
"I can't understand why this wouldn't be a fair process," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's Democratic leader. "It's not a political issue."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a Democrat expected to have a tough 2006 race, acknowledged "it's always possible" that the closures could be politically motivated. "But at this point," she said, "I trust the process."
Republicans have as much to lose as Democrats.
At the congressional hearing last month, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota - a Republican in his first term - followed Dole's lead.
"One of the qualities I think that you bring to this is that you are a fair-minded person," he told Principi. Then, he added: "I know that any fair-minded person will see the value of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota."