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Congress Sees Little Joy in Long-Awaited `Peace Dividend'

By Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

For as long as most lawmakers can remember, Congress dreamed of the day it could declare the long-awaited "peace dividend," showering a grateful nation with the fruits of victory from the nearly half-century-long Cold War.

Now the moment is at hand, and there is little joy on Capitol Hill.

"The truth is we are not prepared for peace in the world," said Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif).

The reason for the dismay -- and second thoughts about defense-spending cuts that are gripping doves and hawks alike -- is jobs, especially jobs during a recession.

As many as 2 million civilian and military jobs will be lost by 1996 even if Congress goes no further than President Bush has proposed in cutting the defense budget, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has concluded.

Aside from suggestions by Nunn and a few others, there is no short-term or long-term plan for conversion of these jobs, skills and resources to domestic purposes, a failure of foresight that the United States shares with the former Soviet Union, lawmakers note.

Without such planning, Nunn said in a speech last week, "we may not only inhibit recovery from the current recession, we may also lose our best opportunity that recovery can lead to long-term economic growth."

The Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp., largest employer in Rhode Island and second largest in Connecticut, has announced layoffs of up to 4,000 employees by year's end because of planned termination of the Seawolf nuclear-submarine program. Without Seawolf, General Dynamics has said it would pare back its Groton, Conn., work force of 20,000 over the next five years until work was finished on 15 other submarines on its order book.

Across the country in Southern California, Northrop Corp. announced elimination of 1,500 jobs when Bush proposed to phase out the B-2 "stealth" bomber program after adding five more planes, stopping at 20 instead of the 75 advocated earlier by the administration. Ultimately, nearly 40,000 jobs could be lost on the B-2 project, sooner rather than later if Congress rejects the five new planes. In all, 200,000 defense-industry jobs in California are believed imperiled by planned defense cutbacks.

Since the height of the Reagan administration's defense buildup in 1985, spending authority for new weapons has declined precipitously: from nearly $100 billion a year to $59 billion this year. Bush's proposal for fiscal 1993 would slice it further, to less than $55 billion, cutting, delaying or terminating programs ranging from cruise missiles to tanks.

It was easy to strike heroic poses when the issue was guns vs. butter and the threat was the military-industrial complex or a hostile Soviet bloc, said a House Democratic aide. "It's not so easy when all the devils are gone, and the issue is some average guy's job on an assembly line ... especially if he's in your congressional district."

"Congress is caught between a rock and a hard place," said Gordon Adams, director of the private Defense Budget Project, which has pushed for a leaner military program. "The rock is the desire for a peace dividend. The hard place is jobs in your district."

For Congress, the critical decisions about cancellation of weapons, force reductions and base closures come when other jobs are shrinking rather than growing and when Americans are pessimistic about their economic future. In some areas, a military base or defense plant is the foundation on which the local economy rests.

Initial decisions also must be made during an election year marked by bipartisan expressions of concern for the middle class, which includes the vast majority of rank-and-file defense workers.

Because of the high costs of terminating projects and because defense savings start small and build up slowly over the years, Congress will have little to show in the short-term for the pain it is causing. The political cost will come before the elections, the political benefits later.

Moreover, many who have characterized employment as the best social program that a free-market economy can offer are asking how they can justify laying off people in the name of expanding social-welfare programs to take care of people without jobs. Defense jobs, especially military service, are also important paths of opportunity for poor, especially minorities, they note.

As a result of these and other considerations, powerful pressures are building in Congress for a slowdown, or stretchout, of military-spending cutbacks to allow more time for conversion of defense plants or development of alternative jobs. It is not so much what will be cut but when, lawmakers said.

The range of debate appears to lie between the savings of at least $100 billion that Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) has proposed over the next five years and the five-year, $50 billion savings Bush has advocated. Many Democrats are predicting a compromise closer to Bush's number than Mitchell's.

A key question is whether lawmakers with imperiled defense installations will pull together to vote for a military-spending program that is fat enough to accommodate them all and then vote for each other's programs in a kind of giant logroll.

More likely, many say, is a narrower, every-district-for-itself approach. Some also suggest regional warfare, pitting the high-tech weapons makers of the two coasts against military bases of the South, to say nothing of shootouts between producers of submarines and surface vessels for shrinking shipbuilding dollars.

"People won't vote for someone else's program. ... The money you spend on something else means less is left for what you want," said Rep. Sam Gejdenson, (D-Conn.), who is concentrating on saving the Seawolf. A B-2 supporter dismissed the Seawolf by scornfully suggesting that "it leaks," a reference to welding problems that Seawolf backers say have been corrected.

But some believe a marriage of convenience could come on what is expected to be an early vote on breaking down the budgetary "wall" that prohibits transfer of resources from defense to domestic accounts through the rest of this fiscal year.

To the surprise of many lawmakers, the Senate last month voted 53 to 4 5 against a non-binding proposal by Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) to break down the wall to permit use of defense funds for education and other domestic programs. Four of the six senators from the principal B-2 and Seawolf states opposed the proposal; only Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) supported it.

Retaining the wall will not necessarily save any weapons program, but any breach would make the job much harder, both sides agree. Mitchell, who wants to break down the wall, said last week he is uncertain whether the votes are there to do so.

As Aspin, Nunn and other defense planners prepare initial recommendations, unofficial caucuses are developing around the B-2 and Seawolf, laying the groundwork for major rescue efforts.

The roughly 20 California lawmakers who claim at least some B-2 worker s, including liberals and conservatives who rarely agree on anything else, are uniting to assure production of the five additional planes.

Dixon and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) strategically placed on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, have set themselves up as a bipartisan task force to win the $3.6 billion that Bush has requested for the planes.

The Californians acknowledge they face an uphill fight in light of Congress' fading support for the plan even before Bush moved to cut production, although they and others say the jobs issue could make the difference. Aspin noted that it became easier to win support for the last few MX missiles during the 1980s after agreement was reached to cap production at 50.

Saving the Seawolf is expected to be more difficult, even though the Connecticut and Rhode Island delegations are working even more feverishly than the Californians. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) has produced a spiral-bound "white paper" on the Seawolf's future; Dodd becomes almost lyrical about the history of Electric Boat.

Lawmakers from the two states meet frequently as a united delegation and talk almost as one, hawks and doves alike, about the need to maintain the nation's industrial base, especially the capacity to produce submarines, which they describe as the cutting edge of the nation's defense in a post-Cold War world.

Bush not only opposed more Seawolfs but proposed to reach back and rescind $3.4 billion in funding for two boats that have been authorized by Congress, leaving only one submarine as the Seawolf fleet -- "Lone Wolf," it is being called. Dodd contends it could cost $2 billion in contract-termination costs to kill the program, with no boats to show for it. But key lawmakers say the Seawolf is probably beyond saving.