Seats on base-closing panel no guarantee of success for states

Commission members are supposed to be above politics, and questions regarding conflicts of interest have been raised against two Bush nominees.

With a handful of possible vacancies looming on the 2005 Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission, states are clamoring to ensure they are represented on the panel that will review, and potentially dispute, the Pentagon's forthcoming list of base closings and realignments.

Observers, though, warn that a BRAC commissioner's affiliation with a state or installation does not mean those bases are safe.

Daniel Else, a defense analyst and base closure expert at the Congressional Research Service, points out commissioners are chosen on their independence and qualifications. "They're supposed to be above all of this," Else said.

The Senate is expected to approve nine nominees to the commission, as selected by President Bush and House and Senate leaders, as early as this month. The commission will be headed by former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi and will have fewer than four months to evaluate Pentagon recommendations to be submitted May 16.

So far, questions regarding conflicts of interest have been raised against two Bush nominees. Both retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman of Virginia and Philip Coyle of California served on state task forces working to keep installations open during the 2005 BRAC process. The White House has said it might replace one other nominee: retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter, a Georgia native. A possible replacement is Pratt & Whitney Vice President Lloyd (Fig) Newton, a former Air Force general touted by Connecticut politicians, according to New London's The Day, a newspaper published in an area dependent on the Navy's Groton submarine base.

Else notes that commission nominees include former lawmakers and Cabinet members, retired military officers and a Clinton-era Pentagon appointee. Else noted those who served in uniform might be less likely to exhibit loyalty to a state or region and are more apt to uphold the Pentagon plan to change the military, which hinges largely on closing excess bases. Else added, though, that a handful of politicians who might have stronger regional ties are included among BRAC candidates.

Even if commissioners inject personal allegiances into the process, they will have to convince four other panelists to go along, says Christopher Hellman, director of the project on military spending oversight at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

"There could be some deal cutting," Hellman said. "But at the end of the day, five individuals have to be sufficiently comfortable defending this position in public," he said, referring to the simple majority required in order for the commission to remove a base from the Pentagon list.

Else agrees: "The commission process is going to be right out there in the open." Also, Hellman said, "previous BRAC commissions have by and large embraced the Defense Department's base closure recommendations."