House rattles saber at Pentagon

By BART JANSEN, Washington Correspondent

Friday, May 27, 2005

WASHINGTON In a largely symbolic gesture, the House agreed Thursday to cut off funding for the latest round of military base closures unless the Defense Department provides detailed information about how decisions were made.

The Pentagon's plan includes changes that would eliminate 7,000 jobs in Maine. Even if the funding restriction becomes law - which is unlikely - it won't take effect until after the base-closing commission finishes its work.

"It's an expression of congressional frustration," said Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine. "If this data is not made available very quickly, more and more people will conclude the process is rigged."

Earlier Thursday, in a defeat for opponents of base closures, the House refused to take $169 million from the $1.9 billion allocated for the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which is reviewing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations.

But by voice vote, the House amended the $85.2 billion spending bill for military quality to cut off commission funding entirely unless the Pentagon releases the detailed information it promised.

"None of the funds made available by this act may be used to close or realign any military installation approved for closure or realignment in 2005 before the secretary of defense makes the information available upon which the secretary's closure and realignment recommendations were based," the amendment said.

The House legislation must be reconciled with a Senate version that is still being debated. President Bush has threatened to veto legislation that derails the base-closure process.

Even if the House language becomes law, it won't take effect until Oct. 1. The commission must give President Bush its final list by Sept. 8.

"No, I don't think it stops the process," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., Appropriations Committee chairman. "You have to understand how frustrated members are with the process."

Under Rumsfeld's recommendations, released May 13, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery stands to lose 4,510 jobs as its functions are sent to Norfolk, Va.

The Brunswick Naval Air Station would lose 2,420 jobs - about half of its work force - as its planes are moved to Jacksonville, Fla.

Two other closures would cost the state 354 jobs at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Limestone and seven jobs at the Naval Reserve Center in Bangor.

Officials from Maine, which stands to lose the second-highest number of jobs in the country, insist they need detailed documents to argue against the Pentagon's recommendations.

Time is a factor. The congressional delegation will meet this morning with the commission's chairman, Anthony Principi. Commissioners will tour Portsmouth on Wednesday and Brunswick on Thursday.

Gov. John Baldacci and 13 other governors signed a letter to Bush demanding the documents.

"With the site visits already under way and regional hearings set to begin June 7 we feel that the Department of Defense is long overdue in meeting its requirements under the BRAC statute," the letter said.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine, have sponsored legislation to delay the round of base closures for as long as the documents are withheld.

"To the Pentagon the Congress is saying, 'Stop playing hide and seek with the numbers,' " Snowe said. "This is an issue of basic fairness and transparency - that is why I introduced legislation (Wednesday) to delay this process until we receive all the information from the Department of Defense."

Collins requested a Government Accountability Office study of whether the Pentagon used accurate information in making its decisions. For example, the recommendations were off by 50 percent in listing the number of jobs that would be eliminated at the Limestone accounting office.

In another development, Snowe's office released without comment a memo from a top Pentagon official saying there is no need to delete computer files containing the information that Maine officials have demanded.

"There is no need at this time to delete files or purge networks," wrote Carol Haave, deputy under secretary of defense for counterintelligence and security. "Further guidance will be provided upon a final determination regarding the status of the database."

Destruction of the records would be provocative because Collins has threatened to subpoena the documents if the Pentagon refuses to release them.