No spending ... except here

March 16, 2013

We’ve all heard the rhetoric.

Our representatives in Washington, D.C., are looking for ways to trim the budget, save taxpayer dollars, reduce debt and jettison redundancies. They’re on a constant crusade to make government operate in a leaner fashion, like a household or small business.

Pity that our representatives in Washington, D.C., are continually being stymied by...our representatives in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps there’s no better example of this than the news that the Air Force Reserve’s 911th Airlift Wing in Moon Township has been spared the budget-cutters’ ax.

In triumphal press releases sent out Wednesday by Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, both hailed the fact that the base would stay open through at least 2014, a turnabout from an earlier directive that it would shutter in September. For years, the 911th Airlift Wing has been in the gunsights of Pentagon officials looking to consolidate services and retire eight C-130H Hercules aircraft. It was in the crosshairs in recent months as the Defense Department looks for ways to reduce its spending by $500 billion over the next five years. Murphy’s office noted that not only would the 911th Airlift Wing be preserved but that, in January, the House and Senate also required that 32 cargo planes be kept aloft the Air Force had wanted to mothball.

Proponents for keeping the 911th Airlift Wing open claimed that its closure would have cost hundreds of jobs, taken over $100 million out of the regional economy and eliminated a base that is a model of efficiency. Col. Craig Peters, the base’s commander, also offered a less-than-reassuring brief about why the 911th Airlift Wing was necessary, saying that another 9/11-style attack was inevitable. “When this happens, we are here,” he said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Of course, no one would be happy to see hundreds of dedicated employees tossed onto the dole and millions of dollars withdrawn from the economy when it’s still recovering from the recession. And if Casey, Murphy and other state and local leaders hadn’t gone to the mat for the 911th Airlift Wing, it would have been an act of political malpractice tantamount to taking the weekend off before the election to plan your Cabinet, as the hapless Thomas Dewey did in 1948.

But a salient fact remains: The Pentagon budget-cutters have been circling the 911th Airlift Wing for years not because they’re mean-spirited Scrooges or nurse a special grudge against Pittsburgh. They have believed, rightly or wrongly, that closing it would streamline operations and save taxpayer dollars. The same principle applies to other bases they have been trying to close or consolidate. In most instances, this would be praised as unusually virtuous behavior coming from otherwise profligate government bureaucrats. But not when it’s in our backyards. In the same way that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter, one politicians’s “wasteful spending” is another politician’s “vital job-producer” for his constituents.

The battles over bases have been happening as Pentagon analysts say they have too few dollars to pay for too much infrastructure. As of 2012, according to one report, the Defense Department operated 5,000 sites worldwide with 542,000 facilities spread over 28 million acres. With the Cold War 20 years in the rearview mirror, the engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and pressing needs here at home, maintaining this much real estate is unwise and unsustainable.

So, yes, the 911th Airlift Wing staying open through 2014 is a victory. Saying anything contrary seems almost heretical. But it’s also a perfect illustration of why there’s so much red in the federal ledger.



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