March 31, 2005

March 31, 2005 | Commentary on

Checkbook Security

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, many, federal lawmakers seem to think spending is the only tool they have, so they "fix" problems by throwing more money at them.

Look at Medicare. The program is facing a major financial crisis. So what did Congress do in 2003? It added a giant prescription-drug entitlement, mandating hundreds of billions of dollars worth of new spending. Lawmakers will worry about how to pay for this program later -- preferably when they're safely retired.

In a similar fashion, Congress has dealt with homeland security by plowing money into various programs. Spending ballooned from $16 billion in 2001 to more than $47 billion this year.

Granted, much of this increase was necessary. In many ways, our government was caught flat-footed on 9/11. It was important to increase funding for everything from border security to counterterrorism and a host of preparedness programs.

But it's time now to step back and make sure this spending is focused on priority areas. Washington is responsible for stopping foreign terrorists before they attack on our soil, and for protecting our critical infrastructure.

But the federal government won't achieve those goals simply by spending more or by cutting checks to the states. For one thing, it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to equip every state with enough resources to conduct every critical homeland security task. Besides, Washington already has provided so much money that state and local governments are having trouble spending it effectively.

Instead, Congress should follow the president's advice and restructure the way it delivers homeland security money to the states.

 

This year, each state is guaranteed to receive a set percentage of the total funds allocated for the State Home­land Security Grant Program. But it makes no sense to spend money this way. After all, California and New York are clearly at greater risk than Idaho and North Dakota, so any funding formula that needlessly diverts money from high-risk states to low-risk ones is misguided.

 

President Bush is proposing to cut the minimum state allocation in 2006. That's a sensible first step.

 

Lawmakers also should restructure some of the $2.6 billion worth of direct grants. For example, they should eliminate programs such as Assistance to Firefighter Grants (Fire Grants) and instead spend the $500 million proposed for that program on the general State Homeland Security Grant Program.

 

Why? The current Fire Grant program mainly benefits rural communi­ties -- targets not likely to be high on terrorist hit lists. And it does nothing to build a national homeland security network. The state grant program, however, if used correctly, can begin to build that system.

 

In addition, Congress should eliminate earmarks -- money that specific lawmakers set aside for pet projects in their states or districts. Instead of this pork-barrel spending, the federal government should fully implement Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8. That sensible measure calls for allocating grants according to concrete threat and vulnerability assessments, instead of a straight percentage system.

 

Finally, Congress should restructure the Department of Homeland Security to help it build and maintain an effective national defense system. This is going to require more than moving around boxes on a flowchart. Where there's overlap, some agencies should be combined and others eliminated. Doing so would both save money and increase the efficiency of DHS.

 

It's time for lawmakers to put their hammers down. Washington should stop throwing money around and start spending more effectively to build a national system we can count on to keep us safe.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office