Slash federal spending! (But not in my district)


WASHINGTON -- Former Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon of Illinois, chairman of the latest presidential commission on military base closings and realignments, had a few words the other day for his former congressional colleagues and all other special pleaders. He told them, in effect, that they had had their say, and it was now time to get lost.

Dixon, after a round of public hearings at which more than 200 members of the House and Senate from nearly every state urged the commission to protect military installations in their districts and states, announced: "I will not take any more telephone calls or have any more meetings with individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of our final deliberations."

The former Illinois senator, who had a reputation in Congress as a tireless champion of his own constituent interests, noted that the commission has until July 1 to make its recommendations to President Clinton. "In a real sense," he said, "we will be acting in a judicial capacity, and our actions should be taken in an environment free of the pressures from those affected by our decisions."

You might have thought, in this year's congressional climate advocating sharp spending cuts and deficit reduction, that the good legislators might have been a bit hesitant about stepping forward to ask that their own particular bases not be closed. On the contrary, among the members of Congress who seized the five minutes allotted to make a final pitch were six freshman senators and 18 freshman House members -- all Republicans who rode into office last November on the Newt Gingrich formula of austerity and cutting government down to size.

The commissioners heard the same old arguments for saving particular military facilities -- that the initial recommendations were not fair, that they didn't adequately take into consideration the impact on the community or that the calculations of savings that would accrue were inaccurate.

Most conspicuous among the complainers was Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, seeking the GOP presidential nomination on a platform of deep slashes in the federal budget. "Our love affair in Texas with our military bases didn't happen the day they went on the Base Closure Commission list," he said, pleading that four targeted Texas facilities be spared. "Texas has always believed in a strong defense. . . . We want to continue to play a leadership role." When a judgment is made "on the merits," he predicted, the four would be kept open.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich of Ohio, pleading for Newark Air Force Base in his state, proclaimed that "I'm not here to keep something open. It just depends on what the facts are."

He argued that the General Accounting Office, which estimated the savings involved, had them wrong. "Sometimes they do great work," he said, "sometimes their work is less than great. Sometimes their work is flat out wrong."

Republican freshman Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who spoke for Robins Air Force Base, said: "Robins is a company town. There is no disputing it. . . . The people of Georgia have a long and storied commitment to their military. . . . In middle Georgia, there is no bigger game in town."

And this from another Republican freshman, Rep. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland, defending the Middle River publications depot outside Baltimore: "The folks in Baltimore are a family. . . . These people sweat together; they work together on behalf of our country. Think about this statistic: They average one turnover every 15 years. . . . They believe in one another. They are a true family."

GOP freshman Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee even invoked the Oklahoma City bombing as a reason for keeping a Memphis supply distribution depot. Its 1,300 employees, he argued, "would be, frankly, disproportionately affected as minority employees if this closure goes through." They were the ones, he said, who "helped ship supplies to relief workers in Oklahoma City the day of the federal building bombing disaster."

And so it went. In the campaign to cut government it still depends, as always, on whose ox is being gored.

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