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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: California beware in new base closing plan

October 09, 2001

From Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert to Port Hueneme Naval Air Station on the Ventura County coast, China Lake Naval Weapons Center at Ridgecrest and Travis Air Force Base beside Fairfield, alarm bells should be ringing as the Bush Administration proposes a plan for devising a new hit list of military base closures.

Not even the terror attacks of Sept. 11 could deter the U.S. Senate from passing that plan.

Aside from its impact on California cities and other communities around the nation, some military experts worry that closing too many bases could leave America short of defenses.

They note that when radar picked up the aberrant courses of the hijacked American Flight 77 and United Flight 93, it took 40 minutes to scramble jets into the Washington, D.C. area because closer bases are shut down. Fighter jets needed even longer to arrive over Los Angeles, scheduled destination of three of the doomed flights.


That's a far cry from how it could have been if El Toro Marine Air Station or Castle Air Force Base near Adelanto or George Air Force Base near Victorville had been active. It would take even longer for jets to reach San Francisco in an emergency, with Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County closed and Moffet Field in Mountain View at much-reduced levels.

What's more, California is still not over the shock of an eight-year round of base closings between 1988 and 1996 which saw the American military shut down 97 bases around the world — 27 of them here. This state lost almost one-third of the 87 bases the military once operated here.

While the onetime Presidio in San Francisco is largely parkland today and the former Fort Ord outside Monterey became a state college campus, the long-term fate is still uncertain for shuttered bases like El Toro in Tustin, the naval base at Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.

In the last two rounds of base closings, the 54 Californians in Congress at least had some small voice when the final closure plan went to a vote.

This time, the 55 Californians in the next Congress would have virtually none. When they talk of base closings, Pentagon officials like to use the phrase "temporary dislocation." But many of the workers who once drew large government salaries for highly skilled labor are still impacted by the closures. They've either been forced to move or, in many cases, take civilian jobs at far lower pay.

That's why, when the Pentagon continues pushing its proposed new base-closing commission, to be charged with singling out 25 percent of all current bases for elimination, hairs should stand up on the backs of California necks.

In formal terms, the Bush administration wants a nine-member "independent commission" to receive a list of base-closing recommendations from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — who did not resist when the only Army base in his former Illinois congressional district — the only one anywhere near Chicago — was closed and turned into a bunch of upscale mansions beside Lake Michigan.

Commissioners would be appointed by President Bush, in "consultation" with House and Senate leaders. With no Californians now in the highest levels of congressional leadership, it's unlikely this state's interests will be represented on the commission.

And even if the commission wanted to make changes, the administration plan would let Rumsfeld block them with a simple written notice. So Rumsfeld, a longtime fixture in Republican administrations who didn't even think of fighting for his old constituents, would have almost exclusive power to decide who loses a base and who doesn't.

Yes, Bush himself would have veto power over whatever Rumsfeld submits but could not change the plan. He'd either have to take all of it or nothing.

Of course, nothing prevents Rumsfeld from discussing it with his boss ahead of time.

And when Congress eventually receives the plan, supposedly around September 2003, it also could make no changes, but could only accept the entire hit list or reject it by passing a joint resolution. It's not likely Rumsfeld would consult any of the Californians in Congress ahead of time.

In real life, that means Rumsfeld would make the decisions, and there's no reason to believe he'll care a hoot that many parts of California still have not completely recovered from the last round of base closings.

This plan is now before the House. If the Californians there don't stand fast against it, without regard to party, they'll be ignoring the best interests of this state and subjecting even more areas to the trauma and dislocation of losing thousands of quality jobs.

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