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Public Set to Weigh In on Base-Closing List

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The federal commission on military base closings made inspection visits in 10 states this month to examine facilities that the Pentagon wants to close or downsize. The list includes 33 major bases, with dozens of others slated for what's called realignment. This decision has attracted many lobbyists, and for those who specialize in military real estate, this is harvesttime. But they were laboring in the field long before the list came out, and some will continue long after the decisions are made. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Lobbyists and lawmakers will be working together this time to influence the Base Closure and Realignment Commission. That's BRAC to everyone who deals with it. The commission has the power to change the Pentagon's list, a power that Congress itself does not have. Next week, the commission starts field hearings. One will be at Rapid City, South Dakota, where nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base is on the hit list. Republican Senator John Thune got elected in South Dakota last fall, in part by saying he could keep Ellsworth off the list. Now he's one of several members of Congress pushing legislation to freeze the whole base-closing process.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): To be in a just sort of indiscriminate way closing all of these bases around the country seems to be very poorly timed.

OVERBY: Legislation like this gets attention, and it might even work. But the most effective lobbying would make sure BRAC never even considered closing your hometown base.

Mr. PAUL HIRSCH (BRAC Lobbyist): The best way to avert a problem with BRAC is to get an early start.

OVERBY: That's BRAC lobbyist Paul Hirsch. His practice includes military base communities that he's represented since 1994.

Mr. HIRSCH: There's no silver bullet. There's no one method or idea here. It's a combination of ideas--national security, community participation, that military and civil service are great partners in the regions that they live in. And so it's a whole package, if you will.

OVERBY: Parts of the package? Making the Pentagon need the base, getting the Defense Department or Congress to assign new weapons systems to it, building alliances between the base personnel and the surrounding communities, and, above all, not waiting till the last minute and then asking members of Congress for help. Instead, Hirsch says you've got to educate Washington on the base's economic value--continually.

Mr. HIRSCH: In the case of a couple of our bases, they have had long-standing military affairs committees that visit Washington on an annual basis--the constant, gentle drumbeat of how valuable that military base is to their region.

OVERBY: Like most BRAC lobbyists, Hirsch learned about base closures on the inside. He was a top staffer for a BRAC commission in 1991. Bob Gillcash got his first BRAC experience in the next round, 1993. Working for Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, Gillcash organized the effort to save the New London submarine base. Connecticut won that time, but now the base is back in the crosshairs. And Gillcash, now a lobbyist and consultant, has a counterintuitive idea for places like New London.

Mr. BOB GILLCASH (Lobbyist and Consultant): You need to fight like hell, but I also believe that in the event you find yourself unsuccessful, what is going to be plan B?

OVERBY: Gillcash wants to be a plan-B guy. He no longer represents communities that are trying to get a base off the list. He's focused on what happens after Congress and the president approve the final list.

Most observers expect this BRAC commission will keep most of the Pentagon recommendations. So Gillcash thinks he may be getting new clients soon, as reality sets in. He sees reasons for communities to be optimistic. For instance, wherever the military pulls out, it will leave behind a work force of civilians.

Mr. GILLCASH: There are entities out there that recognize that they're always going to have a need for smart, capable workers in a work force environment that don't have to move, that are earnest in their desire to make a go of it.

OVERBY: It will take months, at least, for local leaders to come around to Gillcash's point of view. In the meantime, they'll keep fighting to save what they've got. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.