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Armed Services

Base Closures And Troop Reductions

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the COLD WAR, the U.S. government began the politically charged task of reducing military budgets and closing or shrinking unnecessary military installations. The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act (10 U.S.C.A. § 2687), passed by Congress in 1990, set off a firestorm of controversy over which bases should be closed and whether the country's military readiness was being compromised. The act created a presidential commission to decide which bases to close based on Pentagon recommendations. The commission's decisions are sent to the president, who accepts or rejects them in their entirety. If accepted, the recommendations are sent to Congress, which can only block the closings if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval within 45 days. Commissions meeting in 1988, 1991, and 1993 decided to close a total of 70 major installations.

The base closures came under immediate fire as senators and representatives tried to prevent bases in their home states or districts from being shut down. One group of elected officials, including the four senators from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, brought suit in federal court to challenge the procedures under the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act and to block the closing of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, one of the region's biggest employers. The case never went to trial. Instead, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Clinton administration's appeal on the question of whether the suit could be brought at all. The Court held that the government's choice of which bases to close under the act could not be challenged in federal court (Dalton v. Specter, 511 U.S. 462, 114 S. Ct. 1719, 128 L. Ed. 2d 497 [1994]).

At about the same time as the Dalton decision was announced, the Defense Department, concerned about the effect of base closings on surrounding communities, began planning to postpone the final round of shutdowns scheduled to follow the commission's 1995 meeting. A senior Pentagon official defended the delays, saying, "As the defense budget goes down and we close bases, the issue now is the pace of closures so people and communities can adjust." Some critics claimed that the delays were a political move designed to take pressure off the president and Congress until after the 1996 election.

The issue of cost and the shrinking military budget loomed large in the debate. The purpose of closing the bases was to eliminate unnecessary costs, but the process of preparing a base for nonmilitary use was itself expensive. Military bases are exempt from federal environmental regulations, but when they are converted to private use, all the stockpiled weaponry and toxic waste must be disposed of in order to avoid liability. The government had set aside $3 billion a year to cover environmental cleanup plus construction and repair of buildings and roads. Still, the projected savings by the end of the 1990s was $4.6 billion a year.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff were adamant that the base closings continue apace. "We really need this," said Admiral Boorda. "There's not enough money to maintain infrastructure we no longer need." But the base shutdowns exacted a heavy human toll. Communities surrounding the closed bases suffered dire economic consequences. In 1993, for example, the states where base closings were concentrated—Florida, Virginia, California, and South Carolina—lost a total of over 50,000 civilian jobs. In addition, many industries that depended on military contracts cut their workforces in response to reduced orders. For example, in September 1994, Northrop Grumman Corporation, which built B-2 and FA-18 fighter jets, announced it would cut its staff by 18 percent by the end of 1995. McDonnell Douglas Corporation shaved its workforce from 132,900 to 80,000 between 1990 and 1994. The layoffs left many educated, formerly well-paid professionals without work in a stubbornly sluggish economy. Many were forced to take temporary or part-time jobs at salaries far below what they had previously been paid.

Shrinking military budgets and closing bases inevitably led to questions about combat readiness among the services. Conservative members of Congress, traditional supporters of military spending, disputed the Pentagon's assurances that equipment and troop levels remained at the optimal "two-war" level, that is, at a level where the country could fight two regional wars nearly simultaneously. Liberals, on the other hand, argued that the military exaggerated its needs. Sweeping Republican victories in both the House and the Senate in 1994 seemed to embolden the branches of the service in their long-standing rivalry for funds. Critics claimed that the Army created an unduly bleak picture of its combat readiness. Admiral Boorda, who had previously supported spending reductions, changed his position and began LOBBYING for increases in the Navy's fleet. For his part, President Clinton responded to criticisms that the military was underfunded with a request for a $25 billion increase in the Pentagon's budget between 1995 and 2001. Not surprisingly, the move was criticized both by liberals who felt it was an unnecessary political maneuver and by conservatives who felt that it hardly went far enough.

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