August 6, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Congress' Homeland Insecurity

If power companies invested in infrastructure like the Department of Homeland Security fights terrorism, then a resident in New York City wouldn't be able to run a hairdryer but every cowboy in Bozeman, Mont., could light up a stadium.

Because of the rules set by Congress, Homeland Security provides every state with a guaranteed minimum amount of grants regardless of risk, need or how they support national priorities and the goal of making all Americans safer.

Today, Congress has an opportunity to reform the system. But it is not clear that it will choose security over politics.

Homeland security is a strategic problem which requires a strategic solution. And the strategy is simple: not every need is worth funding; the greatest priorities and risks must be addressed first -- period.

The mission of the Department of Homeland Security is first and foremost to prevent another September 11. It isn't to subsidize local fire stations so they can buy health club memberships like they did in Massachusetts and other places.

A dollar spent on preventing the next terror attack is vastly superior to spending dollars on recovering in the aftermath of an attack. That's not to say that some spending on preparing to respond to an attack is not prudent. Our government can never guarantee that every terrorist can be stopped. However, we can't build a sound national preparedness system simply by writing checks.

Yet, sadly, this common sense principle is often overlooked by members of Congress more interested in cheery press releases that trumpet how much cash they have garnered for the voters back home.

The first place where Congress gets it wrong is insisting that an ever greater portion of the Homeland Security Department's budget be handed out in grants to state and local governments and private sector companies, which already get more than 10% of it.

Furthermore, grants to state and local governments are allocated based on a formula that guarantees every state with an equal minimum amount of funds -- 0.75% of all grant money allocated -- regardless of risk or need. As a result, rural, less populated areas often receive a disproportionate amount of money. Wyoming gets $37.74 per capita while California and New York get less than $5.50.

The underlying theory behind this all-state-minimum formula is that terrorists could strike anywhere.

At one level, that's true. People often forget that the biggest terrorist biological attack in U.S. history happened in rural Oregon where a religious cult spiked the local salad bars so folks in the town would be too sick to vote an upcoming election.

But it is not true that the best way to protect each state is to given them a big chunk of federal tax dollars to spend as they please. In fact, that strategy will make Americans less safe. By trying to protect everywhere, Congress ensures that we protect nowhere adequately.

And pretending that all states are equally vulnerable and deserve the same amount of funding under protects high-risk states, while over funding low-risk states is a waste of homeland security dollars.

Accordingly, reform of these grants is a worthy and urgent priority. In the name of security, we should get rid of the requirement that every state gets part of the homeland security money. And, to the extent that state minimums are included, the minimums should be kept low, in order to provide maximum funding to areas of greatest risk.

The good news is that some in Congress share this view. Last May, the House passed a bill that would change the criteria used to distribute funding. Under this bill, most states would get a 0.25% of the available first responder dollars -- instead of 0.75 percent. More importantly, the bill decreases the base amount of the current formula provided to states while increasing the portion of funds distributed exclusively based on risk. It does not go far enough, but it is certainly a good start.

The bad news is that the Senate just passed a bill that would only slightly decrease this minimum to 0.55%. Worse, it would increase the amount of funding to which this formula applies. That would result in an increased percentage of the funding being tied up in state minimums, in short, being spent without regard to risk and need.

Leading this fight are rural states and the states of the upper Midwest. They worry that altering the grant formula to have funding distributed based on risk could reduce their funding.

Because the details of how risks will be defined are not yet decided -- agriculture could be an important element for instance -- reduced funding for rural areas is not a foregone conclusion.

But that's not the point. Nor is it that moving to a risk based system would mean that some states would see their level of funding decrease. Winners and losers in this situation aren't counted by dollars that are brought home by congress members to their states or districts. Winners and losers in this life or death matter are determined by how effectively homeland security money is used to reduce the risk of terrorism.

The reallocation of federal money based on risk assessment does not preclude state governments from augmenting homeland security spending inside their borders. States and local communities should be in charge of most of their preparedness efforts. That would guarantee a more cost effective use of the money.

It took five years for terrorists to plan the 9/11 attacks. It took three years for them to plan the bombings in Madrid, Spain. And who knows how long it took them to plan the bombing in London.

The terrorists aren't going anywhere. Right now, in some basement or cave they could be beginning planning for an attack that will take place five years from now. We need - the people need -- strategic security for the long-term.

Congress should fix the grant program, so that we have adequate security five years from now -- not throw around resources on wasteful programs, pushing up the budget deficit and making the nation weaker - just to bring home some homeland security pork.
Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and
James Carafano, is senior fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in Tech Central Station