Hoping to speed the shutdown of obsolete military bases by removing an often insurmountable hurdle, the House has decided to take politics out of the process.
On a 374-39 vote Tuesday, the House approved a bill by Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, and sent it off to a conference with the Senate to work out differences with a version adopted earlier as part of another bill.Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., a supporter of the bill, said, "This is a national security bill. We ought to do what we have to do" to get politics out of base closing efforts.
And Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., said keeping obsolete bases open "is a form of theft from domestic programs. We should have bases ... for one purpose only - meeting a military objective."
Before the final vote, Armey's proposal - one he has been pushing for two years - had been accepted on a 223-186 vote over a version drawn up by four separate House committees.
If it ultimately becomes law, the one-time crack at the problem calls for an existing nine-member Pentagon commission to recommend to the secretary of defense a list of bases that should be closed. The Senate's version of the bill calls for a 15-member commission.
The defense chief could only approve or reject the list, not make any changes. If accepted, the list would then go to the president, and if accepted at the White House, the only way Congress could block the closures would be for both the House and Senate to pass a rejection resolution by a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Armey, calling the bill "a major victory for the American taxpayer," said he is confident the Senate will act quickly and the bill can be signed into law.
"It will go a long way toward cutting fat instead of muscle from our national defense," he said.
Congressional defense analysts expect any list drawn up by the non-partisan commission, which Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci has already named, would include no more than 20 or 30 of the 355 bases that are the most likely targets for closing.
No major U.S. military facility has been closed since 1977, largely because of procedural roadblocks imposed by Congress. Armey's bill brushed away many of those.
The bill declares that base closings should start during 1990 or 1991 and must be finished by 1995.
Much of the opposition to Armey's measure during floor debate on the two competing bills came over its lack of a demand that environmental clean-up costs be included in the formula used to determine if money can be saved in closing a base.
One version of the bill required that the environmental costs be included in the formula, even though the cost must be paid anyway if a base is closed to meet environmental laws.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who argued against Armey's version, said when the environment is damaged "it doesn't care whether it was damaged by a private corporation or the government. The air and the water aren't that smart."
There are 3,816 U.S. military properties in the country, ranging from the largest of bases to the smallest of recruiting offices. Of that number, there are 871 military installations, and 471 the Pentagon considers major bases.
The 355 considered likely possibilities for examination by the commission are ones with civilian employment of 300 or more - the ones that Congress during the 1970s moved to protect with laws putting hurdles in the way of closing by the Pentagon.