PATCHWORK NATION -- September 2, 2010 at 1:02 PM ET
In Hampton Roads, a Military Bastion Meets 'Austerity'
What the military giveth, the military can taketh away. It's not a happy lesson, but it is one that many Military Bastions, counties around armed services installations, have learned in the recent years through rounds of base closings.
And it is a lesson that the 16-county region in southern Virginia known as Hampton Roads is confronting now.
The economy in Hampton Roads is diverse, pushed by multiple drivers including trade at the area's massive ports and tourism on its beaches, but always underpinning it all has been a steady and substantial military presence. Four of the 16 counties in the region fall into Patchwork Nation's Military Bastion category - including Norfolk, home to the Navy's Second Fleet.
Now all of that is being thrown in the air after a string of announcements from the Pentagon that appear to point to a scaling down of much of the area's military presence.
Since January, the region has been hearing about how it might lose one its carriers to Florida - meaning a possible loss of 11,000 jobs. In early August, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced plans to eliminate the Joint Forces Command based in the region - another 6,000 jobs hang in the balance there. And just recently came word that the Navy may consider "mothballing" the second fleet.
Add it all together and the impact is vast. The military has long been considered a key part of the three-legged stool that props up the region. The people of Hampton Roads are wondering how long that will continue to be the case - and whether that stool is going to get a bit wobbly.
A Stool with Two Legs
In some ways Hampton Roads is positioned better for cuts than other Military Bastions around the country. A stool with two legs is better than a stool with none. In some Military Bastions, big cuts in nearby bases can destroy a local economy.
Hopkinsville, Ky., for instance, relies so heavily on nearby Fort Campbell it's hard to imagine what the economy would look like there without it. The manufacturing jobs that once helped push the area forward have long since dried up, as have the rail routes.
But no matter what the rest of the area economy looks like, Hampton Roads is not taking the news of its potential military departures lightly. Five different cities in the area quickly released resolutions protesting the Joint Forces elimination. Some cities are actively fighting the Joint Forces decision. Economic impact studies showed the area would be losing billions in revenue with the changes in mind.
The state of Virginia also quickly jumped in and Gov. Bob McDonnell announced the creation of a commission designed to expand the state's defense and national security facilities.
The stakes in the proposed changes are much higher than the just military jobs. In the modern military, remember, contractors are an integral part of everything from maintenance to office work. The net impact of large cuts is sweeping.
The Politics of Utility and Austerity
That's why, in some ways, the budget battles involving Military Bastions like Hampton Road are going to be fascinating to watch in the coming years as the national debt plays a large role in the national political dialogue.
The nation's Military Bastions tend to be conservative bastions as well, solidly Republican. And as voices in the GOP increasingly argue for austerity, eventually the budget axe will fall on these communities driven, in many senses, by government spending.
In announcing the elimination of the Joint Forces command, Defense Secretary Robert Gates cited as one of the reasons "the culture of endless money that has taken hold" in the military.
And so in Hampton Roads and Military Bastions like it, the arguments are likely to begin, focusing on the need or utility of the items or forces being cut. No one has argued that a program that is wasteful, duplicative or unnecessary should be saved. And in Hampton Roads, the lines have already been drawn.
Rep. Randy Forbes, whose district encompasses some of the Hampton Roads, called the decision to eliminate the Joint Forces Command "further evidence of this administration allowing its budget for social change to determine defense spending." The argument in other words is less about the need for the cuts than spending priorities.
The meaning? All the talk from politicians about needing to make cuts and trim back spending in Washington is going to face some serious hurdles. Austerity is always popular until it hits near home.
Military Bastions like Hampton Roads may find themselves with more reasons than other communities to be picky about what form of austerity they embrace.
This is cross-posted on Patchwork Nation.