If U.S. military bases are to be closed, jobs lost, and lives changed, which communities should feel the heat first - those in an increasingly unsupportive Western Europe, or in patriotic, taxpaying towns in Mississippi? Well, I'm more worried about the plight of folks in Heidelberg, Mississippi than Heidelberg, Germany. The well being of America's taxpayers, our domestic economy and homeland security should take precedent. Most domestic military bases should remain open and ready.
Base closure isn't partisan, but it's political. The question is where and how do we want the politics to play out - in Congress, where people in Mississippi and other affected states can take part in the process via their elected officials, or before an exclusive, closed and unelected commission called the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). Do we want local communities hiring more high-dollar, taxpayer-funded lobbyists to influence the BRAC? Or would we prefer our Congress to make the tough closure decisions free of charge. Here, too, the answers are clear. Base closure is not really an initiative for high-rent lobbyists and fleeting commissions to perform. Congress and the people we represent should participate in the debate and carry out the hard work of base closure. This is consistent with America's tradition of open, representative government, civilian control of the military and taxpayer accountability. It's the way base closure was done for more than 200 years before BRAC, and you'll see Mississippi's delegation challenge BRAC at every turn this year and next.
To date, we've got a perfect record. Mississippi's bases have remained open through three BRAC rounds during the 1990s, and we don't plan to start losing in 2005 when another BRAC round is scheduled. However, even if BRAC does move forward as scheduled, Mississippi's military installations are well positioned to fend off closure. Since the last BRAC round in 1995, Mississippi's delegation has secured billions for our state's bases, mostly in three areas: mission diversification, housing upgrades, and equipment upgrades - all modernizations which will help shield these installations from closure. Mississippi's bases have survived closure rounds in 1991, 1993 and 1995, not because of what we hope they are, but for what they really are - important, longstanding and proven installations that enjoy strong community support and provide our military with flexibility, room for growth and high quality joint operations and training. The same can't be said about every base in every state, and we especially can't say the same about some bases overseas.
America is at war, but not just any war. We're fighting terrorists who have global reach, including to our own homeland. The fight against terrorism is being waged by pilots trained in Columbus and Meridian, soldiers who drilled at Camp Shelby, engineers, seabees and technicians who honed their skills at Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula. For the first time since World War II, America is engaged in a sweeping domestic security effort in which our stateside military bases can play a pivotal role. To close domestic installations - especially Mississippi's busy training bases - would be very shortsighted, given the current array of global and domestic threats.
The Pentagon needs to reduce excess infrastructure. Nobody disputes that. However, I'd like to see a Congressionally-based process unfold where we work in conjunction with the Pentagon to identify areas of excess military capacity - not necessarily bases, but programs and operations - and, from there, determine what facilities would be considered for closure. That will eliminate a very flawed process where all bases are put in the closure pot, and are pitted against one another, forcing local communities to spend money trying to influence the BRAC, even when their local facilities are not really endangered.
If we can't have a better base closure process than the BRAC, then we should start the next round of base closures overseas. In Western Europe America still has bases and infrastructure awaiting a Soviet specter that is more than a decade departed. Americans are growing weary of financing the defense of increasingly uncooperative Western European nations. Given current Western European political posturing and the global terror threats, in the coming decades we may need our domestic military bases more than ever. We should make every effort to put American communities first and to keep our domestic bases open and ready. 1/30/04
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (attn: press office)