With Congress poised to vote on whether to close more military bases, senators and representatives with installations on their home turf are no doubt getting an earful from nervous voters who fear losing jobs. But members should remember their constituents who have even more at stake: the men and women in uniform whose lives depend on the readiness that closing more bases can help ensure.
Since the last round of military base closures in 1995, bills that would have closed additional unneeded installations have died in head-on collisions with politics.
Every year the military begs to shut down obsolete facilities. Every year Congress says no. Members of Congress who claim to stand on the side of the armed forces should support this obvious step to cut unnecessary costs and use the savings to improve the quality of life, readiness and modernization of America's military.
By the Pentagon's own estimate, it wastes billions of dollars running more bases, buildings, hangars and piers than it needs. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said recently, "No organization can say that it's doing a good job with the taxpayers' dollars if it's maintaining some 20 percent to 25 percent excess capacity."
Even with the president's proposed increase in defense spending, there still isn't enough money in the budget to maintain readiness and continue modernizing the force.
Closing unneeded bases would produce real savings. The same can be true of base realignments, which combine the functions of bases from different armed services and get rid of excess real estate. Congress already has given the Pentagon expanded authority to form public-private partnerships to lease out underused facilities or undeveloped portions of a base.
The 97 major bases that have been closed and the hundreds of activities that have been realigned will save $15.5 billion through 2001. Every billion not spent on unneeded bases is a billion that can be redirected toward building an even stronger military.
Part of this money will go into replacing aging military equipment. This modernization will affect another important constituency — the defense industries that were compressed during much of the 1990s but stand to grow again as new generations of defense systems are acquired.
Base closures can mean real opportunity for other industries and communities as well. Contrary to what many fear, the end of a military base can mean the beginning of economic growth and job creation.
Newly energized communities across the country are proving that an old base can become a new engine of prosperity. At the former Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif., new businesses have created more than 2,500 jobs — more than double the civilian employment at the time of closure.
Similar transformations have occurred at other California bases; the former Castle Air Force Base in Merced County, George Air Force Base in San Bernardino County and Hunters Point in San Francisco. Alameda Mayor Ralph J. Appezzato said he believes that the community-driven redevelopment plan there "ultimately will create more jobs, housing, retail spending and tax revenues than we could ever have received with the Navy present."
Only the Congress can enable the Pentagon to close more bases and be rid of the burden of carrying significant excess capacity. Sadly, similar legislation has often died before passage. Members of Congress understandably are reluctant to cast the vote that may — even if only temporarily — cause economic upheaval or cost jobs back home.
Yet elected officials focused on serving their constituents ought to be mindful of all the constituents they all serve — including those in uniform. In every state and congressional district, there are military families who rely on their representatives in Washington to do what is right for their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.
David E. Jeremiah is a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Richard D. Hearney is former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.