When it comes to closing obsolete military bases, Congress is finally showing a modicum of courage and good sense.
Utah has a stake in this issue because at least one of the military bases here could be on the list of facilities slated to be shut down.Anyway, this week the U.S. House of Representatives approved an unusual plan to close a number of obsolete military bases. The Senate earlier passed a similar measure.
Trying to shut down unnecessary bases has been a headache for the armed forces for years. Such a decision, unhappily, has nothing to do with how useful or useless a facility might be; it has everything to do with local politics and fears of negative economic impact. Utah is no exception.
Every time the Pentagon suggests closing a base, members of Congress in the affected state raise all kinds of objections. Rules passed by Congress have made it nearly impossible to close anything. The last time a military base was shut down was in 1977.
In approving the proposal, the Democratic-dominated House voted against its own leadership - after gingerly side-stepping the issue for several weeks. The bill has the backing of President Reagan. The measure would save an estimated $2 billion to $5 billion a year.
The plan calls for a bipartisan commission to choose a list of installations to be closed. The nine-member group, already appointed by Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, does not contain any members of Congress.
The panel would have until Jan. 6 to draw up a list of bases to be closed. An estimated two-dozen places are expected to be on the roster. That's still a far cry from the 274 installations the Pentagon proposed closing in 1973. The U.S. has 900 domestic military bases and some 3,000 other military installations.
Once the list has been compiled, it cannot be altered; Congress must accept or reject the entire package. But unless a majority of both the Senate and House vote against the list, the closings will go into effect.
While the list has not yet been drafted, there is a good chance that Ft. Douglas will be included. It has been mentioned by the bill's sponsor as a prime example of a military base that serves "little, if any" purpose in the national defense.
Sen. Orrin Hatch is seeking to transfer some Army operations from St. Louis to Utah, perhaps to Ft. Douglas. This kind of "realignment," the senator's office says, would also save money and is needed as part of any base-closing program.
If Ft. Douglas turns up on the closure list, Utah cannot allow itself to fall into the position of saying "cut anywhere but here." That kind of reaction is precisely what has kept obsolete bases open all over the nation.
The loss of a military installation is not necessarily a bad thing. Some communities, after having fought closings, have eventually discovered that using the facilities for something else often turns out to be a better deal.
The House and Senate bills now go to a conference committee to iron out differences. The largest defect in either measure is that it is a one-shot package - maybe the last one in a long time. It would make more sense to have some on-going program for combining or closing unneeded military bases.
If such a short list could save up to $5 billion, imagine what could be accomplished with some real efficiency involving hundreds of bases.