Although the military base closing process was developed
with the hopes of taking loaded political issues out of the effort, local communities
and their representatives in Washington have used every political tactic -- from
heart-felt patriotic parades to high-priced lobbying -- to avoid the axe during
the 2005 round of base closings.
many ways the most intense politicking unfolded before the Pentagon published
its list of proposed base closings. In the two years since the Department of Defense
outlined the criteria by which it would judge bases during the 2005 round of the
Base Realignment and Closure procedure, communities have poured money into local
efforts to keep off the dreaded list.
By March 2005, two months before the
Pentagon published its list of proposed closures, states and local communities
had already shelled out more than $10 million to promote and defend their local
For political leaders, it has been cast as a do-or-die fight.
elected official wants to be accused of not doing everything possible to keep
a base open," Christopher Hellman, a senior analyst with the Center for Defense
Information, told the Richmond Times Dispatch.
And for those taking aim
at ousting political leaders, the specter of the base closing bogeyman has made
an effective weapon.
The 2004 South Dakota Senate race, where Capitol Hill's
top Democrat, Tom Daschle, went down to defeat, illustrates the double-edged sword
of BRAC politics.
During the campaign, one group, the American Conservative
Union, promoted the candidacy of Republican John Thune by warning, "South
Dakota's hope of saving Ellsworth Air Force Base rests not on electing the chief
opponent of the president, but rather in electing John Thune. ... Thune will have
the ear of the president. ... A vote for Tom Daschle may well be a vote to close
Thune narrowly edged out the incumbent in the fall election,
but just six months into his term, he faced the harsh reality of the base he had
promised to protect being slated for closure.
"The frustration I guess
I have is, yes, this happens in my first six months in office and now it is something
we have to deal with, but that is where we are," Thune told NPR in June.
"I am not blaming anybody for it, I am blaming the Pentagon for making a
bad decision, but we are going to do everything we can now, we are putting all
the wheels in motion to reverse the decision."
It is the hope of avoiding
the same fate as that of Ellsworth that prompted states and communities economically
dependent on these bases to hire lobbying firms and D.C. consultants.
a self-preservation measure," North Carolina Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue told
the Media General News Service. "You need someone who knows Washington, the
Pentagon. It's a defensive play."
For those groups that reach out to
lobbyists, there are plenty from which to choose. From niche organizations like
the Rhodes Group, a company started by a former BRAC commissioner, to large public
relations firms like Fleischman-Hillard and PMA, companies throughout the nation's
capital have been working for more than two years to make the case to the Department
of Defense that their bases should be spared, if not increased in size.
very competitive," Barry Rhodes told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in
May, adding he would not discuss how he works because, "I don't want to let
others know what we are doing."
It is not just the professionals who
are worried about competitors. States like Florida have passed laws to keep other
states from finding out their techniques and strategies.
But the creators
of BRAC saw the possibility of lobbyists and professional campaigners intervening
in the process and so wrote into the law that lobbyists could meet with BRAC staff
only when accompanied by local elected officials.
Despite these efforts,
states, communities and lobbyists paraded to the Pentagon to make their case for
local installations for months.
"Over the last several months, a week
doesn't go by where I am not asked to meet with a state delegation, a delegation
that a governor brings in with respect to mayors and county commissioners and
others to explain as best I can the process we are undertaking," Raymond
DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, recently
told a House committee.
Despite these efforts to minimize the political
influence on the process, there are clear cases where personal politics and professional
lobbying have worked.
In 1991, Seattle area leaders hired a consultant and
former admiral to make the case that the Pentagon had wrongly slated the Whidbey
Island Naval Air Station for closure. The community, with the admiral's help,
convinced the BRAC Commission that the Department of Defense had wrongly interpreted
the information about the base.
Four years later, Daschle, who would later
be defeated partially on the defense question, personally called President Clinton
on the eve of the initial publication of the base closing list to make the case
"The critical time is that time just prior to the point
when the list is released," Daschle told NPR in late June. "I hope and
I assume that Senator Thune talked directly and personally to the president (in
2005). I have been told that may not be the case, but that's really the time I
think when one can do the most good and weigh-in with the greatest degree of real
Whether sparked by Daschle's personal plea or not, Ellsworth
was spared in 1994.
But if communities are unable to talk, lobby or convince
their way off the Department of Defense's proposed list of closures, there are
a few final Hail Mary's they can throw in an effort to stop the process.
nine-member BRAC Commission travels to many of the locations slated for closure
and/or downsizing and there they face communities that feel their future rests
in the hands of BRAC.
the commission arrives, they are often met by hundreds of local residents, scores
of local officials and many statewide leaders. These crowds are often accompanied
by parades, rallies and massive local media coverage as the community makes its
case to the commission. Although BRAC is set up to eliminate the personal side
of the base closing decisions, these rallies make the commission face the towns
most deeply impacted by their decision.
"Commissioners are human,"
Bob Hurt, a former Senate staffer and now executive in a consulting firm, told
the Journal Constitution. "When they go to an installation and see people
have turned out, it helps."
But regardless of community involvement
and politically influential leaders, once a base is slated for closure, it is
a long uphill struggle to get off the list. Fewer than 15 percent of the bases
slated for closure have successfully lobbied their way off of the BRAC list.
once BRAC sends its list to the president, there is little chance of escaping
the axe. President Bush could choose to send the entire list back to the BRAC
commission for reconsideration or he could reject the entire list, but individual
bases cannot be singled out for saving.
But communities, and their representatives
in Congress, will keep fighting until the bitter end, even if the chances of saving
any individual base seem remote.
And if a base is lost, the political fight
over who to blame will continue well into the next election.