WASHINGTON – A federal commission wrapped up its review of the Defense Department's plan to close and consolidate domestic military bases Saturday, having made changes that it acknowledged would save billions less than the Pentagon's (search) nearly $50 billion estimated savings.
Chairman Anthony Principi (search) said the panel successfully balanced "proposals to restructure military infrastructure against the human and painful impact of those proposals."
Commissioner Harold Gehman (search) added, "We worked really hard to find the right answers."
Only five of the nine commission members were present to make closing remarks on the final day of four days of deliberations. The Saturday session, simply a formality, lasted only 30 minutes.
The hard work was completed Friday, as the panel took up two of the Pentagon's most contentious proposals. It dealt the Pentagon setbacks in both cases.
Rejecting Air Force proposals, the commission crafted its own shake-up of the Air National Guard and voted to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
By Sept. 8, the panel must send its final report to President Bush, who can accept it, reject it or send it back for revisions. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety, but it has gone along with four previous rounds of base closings. If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.
The Pentagon proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion through 2025, make the services more efficient and reposition the armed forces.
But the commission — which cast doubt on the Pentagon's savings projections — said its changes would lower the estimated savings to $37 billion over two decades.
Commissioners said the estimate could be as low as $14 billion when dollars the Pentagon says would be saved by the transfers of military personnel from one base to another were excluded. The commission has long questioned that accounting method, saying it didn't free up real dollars that could be spent elsewhere.
Principi called the numbers "very preliminary."
He and his panel worked into the evening Friday as members concluded the high-stakes decisions that brought sighs of relief or exasperation from communities across America.
Dealing with Air Guard proposals, commissioners shuffled personnel and aircraft around dozens of units — both large and small — in states from coast to coast as they saw fit. They said their plan distributed aircraft around the country more evenly to ensure homeland security is not hampered.
"We have established more flying units than the secretary recommended, but we still could not get a flying unit in every state," Gehman said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's plan had called for nearly 30 Air Guard units scattered around many states to lose their aircraft and flying missions, prompting howls of protests from governors and a few lawsuits. The commission's proposal restored planes to some units, and in doing so, kept open some Air Guard and Reserve bases that would have closed under the Pentagon plan.
Weeks ago, the panel — worried about negative impacts on homeland security — asked that an alternative plan be crafted jointly by the Air Force, the National Guard and state adjutants general who oversee Air Guard units on behalf of governors.
When that effort failed, commissioners said they had no choice but to come up with a solution on their own.
The panel began work on the Air Guard plan just as a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that the Pentagon lacks the authority to close a unit located at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania without Gov. Ed Rendell's approval. The judge declared the plan for that unit "null and void."
Aware of the ruling, the commission labored on anyway — and twice voted on the fate of Willow Grove. Ultimately, it decided to close the base, but to keep intact the Air Guard unit that was subject to the lawsuit and create an Army Guard and Reserve center. However, that unit would have no aircraft.
Commissioners denied that the lawsuit affected their ruling.
The decision to spare Ellsworth Air Force Base was a blessing for South Dakotans, who feared losing some 4,000 jobs, and a victory for Republican Sen. John Thune and the state's other politicians, who lobbied vigorously against closure.
Thune unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle last year partly on the strength of his claim that he would be better positioned to help save the base.
"This fight was not about me," Thune said after the vote. "This whole decision was about the merits. It had nothing to do with the politics."
The commission found that closing Ellsworth wouldn't save any money over 20 years and actually would cost nearly $20 million to move the planes to the Texas base. The Pentagon had projected saving $1.8 billion over two decades.