Appropriators must ensure that funding is directed toward programs that provide the greatest contribution to the most critical missions in homeland security. Getting the "biggest bang for the buck" is a worthwhile criterion to guide these spending decisions. Nowhere is this more important than in the area of maritime security. Maritime commerce is essential to America's economic vitality. Most goods that enter and leave our shores travel by sea. But this economic lifeline also offers terrorists vast opportunities to exploit or attack ships, ports, and waterways. Nowhere should the need for strategic spending be more apparent. Yet, nowhere is it more apparent that Congress has failed to target spending where it could provide the most security.
Owners and operators of the nation's more than 350 ports have made shrill demands for increased federal grants in support of port security. Indeed, estimates for enhancing security at America's ports run into the billions of dollars. The Administration proposed limiting port grants in FY 2005 to $50 million. Lobbying efforts pushed for dramatic increases-as much as $400 million per year. In the end, Congress settled on tripling funding to $150 million. Is that a victory for enhancing maritime security? Not at all.
The Administration was prudent to ask for more limited spending. The U.S. port infrastructure is so vast that providing resources for other than the most critical needs makes little sense. Spreading $150 million across the nation won't come close to plugging all the security gaps at ports. It is akin to locking the door in a house without windows. On the other hand, grant programs have proven far more effective when federal money has been used to fund vulnerability assessments and to encourage public-private partnerships that adopt sustainable and effective port-security programs.
To address the considerable vulnerabilities of maritime infrastructure, the greater share of federal dollars might be more effectively used to invest in effective intelligence and early warning, domestic counterterrorism, and border and transportation security programs-efforts that would keep terrorists out of the ports to begin with.
Where could Congress have gotten a bigger bang for the buck? U.S. Coast Guard assets support all the missions noted above. Yet, the Coast Guard's modernization program has been chronically underfunded, and since 9/11, increased activities are wearing out equipment much faster than anticipated. Despite the service's dire needs, Congress increased the Coast Guard's acquisition budget by only $56 million, even though accelerating acquisition would save money in the long run and significantly increase the nation's capacity to combat terrorism.
Congress should ensure that Coast Guard modernization is fully funded before it even thinks about dumping more federal dollars into port grants for state, local, and private sector projects that contribute marginally to the overall security of the maritime domain. The Administration and Congress should refrain from increasing port security grants in the FY 2006 budget.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.