Last week, Marylanders saw first-hand why cutting the federal deficit is so difficult. The Base Closure and Realignment Commission's decision to close the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Annapolis, along with facilities in Washington and Montgomery counties, reminds us that meaningful budget reductions always hurt someone. The programs that must be eliminated are not all anonymous waste. They have a human face. In this case, it is the face of ordinary working people who depend on military bases to put bread on their tables.
The base closures will cost more than 2,200 Marylanders their jobs and harm countless related businesses. Anne Arundel County will lose 430 positions. The most pain, however, will be felt in Western Maryland with the demise of Fort Ritchie, nestled in the northeasternmost corner of Washington County near the Pennsylvania line; minus that installation, the little town of Cascade no longer has a reason to exist. Cascade is the base. Without Fort Ritchie, Washington County officials estimate local businesses will lose more than 40 percent of their revenues.
Foolishly, state officials failed to take seriously the prospect of these closures and never planned to deal with them. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's promise to "start tomorrow" finding new uses for the bases and new jobs for employees comes as small consolation for those facing relocation or unemployment. And yet, traumatic as these closures are, they must be carried out. Military installations exist not for the people who work there or use their facilities, but for the sake of the country's defense. And defense needs have changed drastically over the past decade. Since the military buildup during the Reagan years, defense spending has shrunk by 40 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis, and troop strength has dropped by 30 percent. Yet even if all 177 bases the commission looked at were closed -- and it proposes shutting only 90 while realigning 33 others -- the U.S. still will have reduced its installations by only 21 percent.
Politically, President Clinton has much to lose by accepting the commission's proposals; the closures hit hardest at California, with the most electoral votes. But neither he nor any other politician can claim to be serious about solving the deficit unless they are willing to make cuts that matter.