January 23, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

ED012302:  Get the Priorities Right

It's more than just the small American flags waving from every third car or the large cloth banners hanging from highway overpasses all over the country. Since Sept. 11, America has gotten serious about many things that seemed forgotten in recent years.

Americans again want their government focused on its main responsibility: national defense. The more President Bush has spoken of this as a priority, the more Americans' faith in their government and its leaders has grown.

Now comes the hard part. To put defense first, we must downgrade functions of government not related to defense -- particularly those that haven't proven effective. This won't be easy. It may create genuine hardship and spark vigorous political battles. But history has vindicated this common-sense approach.

In 1942, shortly after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the nation for war. New Deal programs -- his own initiatives to pull the country out of the Great Depression -- stood in the way for funds, priority and energy.

Fortunately, Roosevelt cared more about his country than about his programs. He proposed in his first budget after the attack that Congress cut spending for federal-assistance programs in half. During the war, few New Deal programs were spared from budget cuts.

Today's challenges require a similar shift. New security programs at all levels of government must be funded, as must significant investment in new security technologies. Like Roosevelt, we must back these new priorities as if our lives depended on them -- because, indeed, they may.

Because the money to pay for them must come from other programs that often serve citizens with legitimate needs, we must ensure that these new initiatives do, in fact, bring real security. Here are a few of the many recommendations The Heritage Foundation's Homeland Security Task Force came up with to point out how we can do this most effectively:

  • Expand the Justice Department's "Train-the-Trainer" program to ensure that more of those who respond first to disaster scenes, from firefighters to police officers, can evaluate and respond to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks.
  • Improve the flow of information among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and create new intelligence "fusion" centers to help these agencies prevent new terrorist attacks.
  • Increase defense spending to keep our military forces and National Guard ready and able to win the war on terrorism, both at home and abroad.

And the American private sector, engine of the most successful economy in world history, can't be left on the sidelines. It owns or operates most of the nation's vital assets. Therefore, it handles security for computer nodes, energy grids, port facilities, and -- until recently -- airports. Government needs this expertise, and market forces will ensure competitive costs.

The government must provide oversight, of course -- set standards, hold the industry accountable and remove roadblocks to providing effective security. But the ideas that drive the free market can and should be put to use in keeping America safe.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., for one, doesn't see these advantages. He says that "letting a thousand different ideas compete and flourish" won't work and that only the federal government has the "breadth, strength and resources" to succeed. He helped pass the bill that added tens of thousands of people to the federal payroll to provide a service -- airport security -- that can, was and should be provided by the private sector.

Even if the events of Sept. 11 could be blamed on lax airport security, federalizing those positions won't improve that security. What will? What always has made America great. Diverse ideas. Competition. Companies looking to build that better security mousetrap will come up with the best and most economical ways to keep America's airports safe.

Can this be said of the sprawling federal bureaucracy created by the Aviation Safety Act? Or any other federal bureaucracy for that matter?

Unfortunately, FDR's lesson of wartime priorities has been lost on many of his successors. Just grow the government, they say. Let it take care of everything.

Actually, the government does best when it stays focused on its constitutionally mandated priorities and lets private industry contribute its ideas whenever possible. The American people understand that. You can tell from the flags in their windows and those cloth banners hanging from the overpasses.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, where Edwin Meese, III is the Ronald Reagan distinguished fellow in public policy and chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Edwin Meese III Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Distributed nationally on the Scripps-Howard wire.