Spending big bucks to try and save military bases

From Florida to California, panic-stricken communities have responded to the upcoming round of military base closings by spending millions of dollars on high-powered lobbyists to make sure their hometown bases survive.

The lobbyists – primarily former congressmen, ex-military officials and people involved in previous rounds of base closings – are using their contacts and expertise to make the case that the installations are an asset that neither the military nor the communities can afford to lose.

“When we can’t personally be in Washington, they share our message,” said Pamella Dana, director of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. “They keep their finger on the pulse of what’s going on day-to-day in congressional circles or budgetary circles as it pertains to defense.”

But some defense analysts question whether the communities are getting their money’s worth.

The base-closure process is designed to be nonpolitical, and once an installation winds up on the list of bases to be closed there’s only about a 10 percent chance it will be taken off, said Ken Beeks of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“You’re wasting your money on a snappy PowerPoint presentation and maybe somebody who understands the process and can represent you a little better than your normal political leaders would,” Beeks said.

“Beyond that, I’m not sure exactly what they are getting.”

Still, the mere possibility that a base might be closed has caused communities that see their installations as a source of economic survival and civic pride to shell out big bucks on teams of lobbyists and consultants.

Florida, which has 21 military installations with a total economic impact of $44 billion a year, is paying $50,000 a month to a team of heavy hitters that include former House Republican leader Dick Armey, former Defense Secretary William Cohen and retired Adm. Robert Natter, former commander of the Navy’s Atlantic fleet.

California, which has been hit the hardest in previous rounds of closings, has hired a Washington consulting firm headed by former Reps. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., and Vin Weber, R-Minn., to defend the state’s 62 bases.

Massachusetts has tapped former Sen. Alan Dixon of Illinois, who headed the base-closure commission in 1995, to help in its fight to preserve Hanscom Air Force Base.

Barry Rhoads, who served as deputy general counsel to the 1991 base-closure commission, is representing a number of clients during this round, including Mississippi, New Jersey and South Carolina.

Some analysts who favor the push to close more bases are highly critical of the lobbyists, particularly those who had a role in the previous round of closings.

“They’ve sold their expertise for money, but probably not for the good of the nation,” Beeks said.

But Natter said communities have a right to be represented by people who have a working knowledge of the military and the base-closure process.

“Would you rather have a mushroom farmer advising a community on a military base?” Natter asked. “How about a politician? I think you’d want to have somebody who knows what the heck they’re talking about.”

The Pentagon has said it wants to close at least one-fourth of the 425 bases nationwide to make the military leaner and more efficient. Recently, however, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested that the number of bases to be shuttered could be much smaller as more troops return from Iraq.

Rumsfeld’s list of possible base closures is due on May 16. A nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, appointed last month by President Bush, will review the list and then forward its own recommendations to the White House by Sept. 8.

A variety of criteria, including a base’s importance to national defense, are factored into the decision about whether an installation should be included on the closure list.

The lobbyists’ greatest influence may be in helping convince the commission that the Pentagon misapplied that criteria and erroneously put an installation on the list, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a public policy group in Arlington, Va.

“If you can prove that the Pentagon didn’t understand a base or didn’t apply its criteria fairly or accurately, you’ve got a very good case for changing their recommendation,” Thompson said.

If not, then a community will have to rely on political pressure to try to keep its base open, Thompson said. “That is a hard sell because everybody is trying to use political persuasion,” he said.

Beeks suggested that the lobbyists’ role may serve another purpose: Providing cover for politicians once a base is shut down.

“Politically, community leaders can’t be seen as not trying to save the base,” he said. “The only way most politicians have to deal with that is to spend money on something. And so you buy the best consulting services you can get. If the base gets closed, they can say, ‘Well, we tried.’ ”

(E-mail Michael Collins at CollinsM(at)shns.com.)