September 12, 2005

September 12, 2005 | Commentary on

High Chairman

With the levees repaired and some of the pumps running again, New Orleans residents finally have something to look forward to: dry ground. Things will never be the same, of course, but most people will be able to stitch their lives back together.

In the meantime, officials in Washington are trying to figure out what went right and what went wrong. The storm represented the first time since 9/11 that our homeland security system was activated to respond to a disaster.

There were tremendous successes: thousands rescued from flooded neighborhoods, severely damaged levees repaired within days. But there were notable failures as well. It took too long to get help to the needy, and the response seemed unorganized for far too long.

This fall, Congress has an important opportunity to improve the federal response to disasters, as the House of Representatives fills a key leadership position -- the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

That position was left vacant when Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., stepped down to run the Securities and Exchange Commission. During his tenure, the committee did a good job of setting up a homeland security system and of setting priorities. But as Katrina has shown, there is plenty of room for improvement, and the next Homeland Security chairman must make sure those improvements happen.

As House members consider who should replace Cox, there are three traits they need to look for.

Number one: The next chairman must be a fiscal conservative.

Simply spending money doesn't guarantee security. There will always be another "worthy" project to spend on. For example, many have questioned why the federal government didn't spend more to improve levees around New Orleans. Instead, DHS invested millions in new fire trucks in the city. Well, those trucks wound up underwater. They proved to be no help when disaster struck.

In the years to come, the government must stop throwing money at localities and instead focus on building a national system that can respond to disasters. Since all spending bills originate in the House, the Homeland Security chairman will be critical to making this happen.

Number two: The new chairman must be "party-blind."

Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, can agree that national security is too important for political games. The new chairman will have to be able to refuse pork-barrel proposals from both parties. And he (or she) will need to build consensus, so the committee can craft a true national approach to homeland security.

Number three: The new chairman must be committed to protecting all Americans.

As DHS was getting started, lawmakers created a complex spending formula, which ensured each state would receive .75 percent of the funds available. That meant that the small state of Wyoming was entitled to $37.94 per person, while California received $5.03 per person. This makes little sense, since California clearly has more terrorist targets than Wyoming and is much more susceptible to natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Again, one of the lessons of Katrina is that the federal government must focus its efforts on building a system that protects everyone against catastrophic events. That won't happen if homeland-security spending becomes nothing more than a pot of money that lawmakers divvy up as political spoils for the folks back home.

In the years ahead, the United States must anticipate more disasters. DHS must help prevent man-made catastrophes such as 9/11 and respond to natural ones such as Katrina. Our best hope is to be prepared, with the correct programs and resources in place.

Lawmakers should keep that in mind as they select the next chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Lives will depend on their good judgment.


Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

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