Defense Secretary Dick Cheney wants to make sure that everyone in the Pentagon bureaucracy follows the party line on one of the most divisive issues that will come down the pike this year - the closing of dozens of U.S. military bases to save money.
The base-closing process will be a gloomy one that will hurt many states economically, put thousands of people out of work and prompt members of Congress to utter their favorite whine: "Not in my back yard, you don't!"Cheney can't silence Congress, but he is attempting to silence the people who work for him. Before he announced his list of suggested base closings, he circulated a memo within the Defense Department warning staffers to keep their opinions to themselves.
Then Cheney set the ground rules for the ugly political battle ahead. He said Defense Department workers should avoid speculation about whether the commission will approve or disapprove the list, as well as speculation about the impact or possible savings gained from the closure of a specific installation.
And, the most dubious instruction: "Stress that the decision to close certain bases is related to budget reductions and is not being made for political reasons." If Cheney really believes that now, he will not feel the same way when the fight is over.
Cheney's list of suggested base closures will first go to a bipartisan commission for review. Then it will be passed on to President Bush who, if he approves it, will send it to Congress.
There is plenty of opportunity for derailing along that political track. Last year, Cheney's original proposal caused an uproar in Congress among those who saw it as a plan to crush the Democrats. More than 90 percent of the bases targeted for closing were in Democratic congressional districts.
Some members of Congress formed a watchdog committee to monitor the process, dedicated to the principle that it is done "smartly and fairly."
Once burned, Cheney was careful to recommend a more balanced list this year, but there still appear to be more Democratic jobs on the chopping block. The Cheney plan recommends the closure of 31 major bases and 12 minor ones by 1997. He says the cuts will save the military $850 million by 1997 and about $1.7 billion a year after that.
What he isn't boasting about is the cost of closing those bases. Some congressional sources question whether the Defense Department will be able to sell the property at market value and whether the estimates for environmental cleanup of the land are realistic.
If Cheney's plan is approved, some communities will feel a pinch and others will be hit by a sledgehammer. The loss of 18,400 jobs at the Naval Training Center in Orlando, Fla., will be painful but not fatal. But the loss of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington will be devastating. The 11,700 jobs at the facility account for 58 percent of the work in the county.
Knowing that the decisions will make no one happy, Cheney is doing his best to keep a lid on the chitchat in the Pentagon.