It was right there in the recommendations of the 9/11
commission: Don't let homeland security become the newest outlet
for pork-barrel spending.
Unfortunately, the commission's concerns have proven all too accurate. Homeland security grants have become the main way the federal government doles out money to states and local law enforcement. As a result, the worst fears of the commission are coming true: We're spending more on homeland security and getting less.
If the administration gets its way, grants to state and local law enforcement and other "first responders" will account for $3.4 billion of the $4.7 billion the federal government plans to dole out for homeland security next year.
The Department of Homeland Security itself has raised a red flag about the perils of porkifying DHS spending. A "Review of the Port Security Grant Program" by its inspector general questioned the merits of "several hundred projects" related to port security.
In one of the more egregious examples of waste highlighted in the IG's report, a private ship terminal that handles "solvents" landed $10,000 to buy fences to prevent the solvents from being released into the sea. What does this have to do with homeland security? For that matter, why is government picking up this tab for a private business to begin with?
It could be a lot worse. Last year, owners and operators of the nation's more than 350 ports made shrill demands for increased federal grants for port security. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., sought to spend $2 billion on these grants. The administration wanted to limit them to $50 million, lobbyists called for $400 million, and lawmakers settled on $150 million.
Which would be a good deal -- $150 million to secure the nation's ports -- if indeed our ports were being secured for this money. But as the IG's report makes all too clear, that is not the case.
The problem goes beyond wasteful spending on port security. It's not clear that even effective spending on port grants would give the nation the biggest bang for its security buck. The U.S. port infrastructure is so vast that, for $150 million, we could barely hope to meet the most critical security needs.
Spreading that money injudiciously across the nation won't come close to plugging all the holes. Even if you spent every penny efficiently, it would be akin to locking the door in a house but leaving the windows open.
So what should we buy with our $150 million? What should the federal role be? The most successful homeland security grants have been used to either fund studies that assess our vulnerability or to encourage public-private partnerships that adopt sustainable and effective port-security programs.
Rather than throw money at ineffective programs that won't begin to address the considerable vulnerabilities of our port facilities, we should divert those federal dollars to beefing up intelligence and early-warning systems, as well as improving domestic counterterrorism and border and transportation security programs. Such efforts would help keep terrorists out of our ports to begin with.
Congress can help address this problem this year by keeping the pigs clear of the trough. The administration proposes to freeze the grant funding for 2006. Less money spent means less wasted in this case. President Bush also has proposed rolling port grant programs into a general fund for state and local grants. That would force port security interests to compete with other priorities, a competition that should weed out the weakest claims on our tax dollars.
Finally, the administration wants to shift dollars from port grants to speeding up modernization of the Coast Guard. This makes even more sense. The Coast Guard's modernization program has been chronically underfunded. And since 9/11, increased activities are wearing out equipment much faster than anticipated.
Lawmakers should ensure that Coast Guard modernization is fully funded before they even think about dumping more federal dollars into port grants for state, local and private-sector projects that contribute only marginally to security at sea.
When it comes to protecting our homeland, results are all that matter. Spending more means little if that money isn't spent well.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire