January 11, 2010

January 11, 2010 | Commentary on Homeland Security

Pork Payoffs in Homeland Security Jeopardize Americans

A domestic financial crisis wasn't enough to end the practice of pork barrel politics. Now we have members of Congress boldly diverting important funds that should be spent to make us more secure to union buddies as a pork barrel payback instead.

As reported by The Examiner, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., covertly slipped a provision into the Department of Homeland Security appropriation bill diverting $4.5 million "for screening operations and the amount for explosives detection systems" from the Transportation Security Administration budget to an ineffective Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program for firefighters.

Little did Sen. Dodd know that just five months later, an al Qaeda terrorist would come within seconds of bringing down an airplane with almost 300 people on it over the United States. With a bit more screening and detection, a terrorist could have been stopped.

President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano can't claim to be in the dark here, because they both receive intelligence briefings every day. Contrary to Secretary Napolitano's totally Brownie-esque claim that "the system worked," the system totally failed.

It will continue to fail unless Congress ends the pork barrel nature of the federal grants programs.

Since March 2003, DHS has doled out almost $30 billion in grants to states and localities. Of that, significantly less than half has gone to the top 30 cities, where that risk of a terrorist attack is greatest.

The vast majority of funds have been spread out like a thin layer of butter on toast. The money has flowed to states, cities and rural areas where the risk is either negligible or so low that the funds already received should have more than paid for whatever minimal capabilities were needed.

Consider Sen. Dodd's pet program.

Federal money allocated to the grant program for firefighters hasn't improved firefighter capabilities at all, according to The Heritage Foundation's David Muhlhausen. He found that "fire grants, including grants that subsidize the salaries of firefighters, had no impact on fire casualties [and] failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths or civilian injuries."

Sen. Dodd's $4.5 million diversion simply took money from airport screening and detection, which we clearly still need, and spent it to placate the International Association of Fire Fighters union.

As for the other grant programs, we have no real idea whether the billions spent have made us safer, because DHS has failed to do a comprehensive capabilities assessment since 2003. Certainly, the funds sent to places like New York City and Los Angeles have enabled those high-risk cities to acquire some of the critical capabilities that they lacked before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But, for every NYC or L.A., there are 10 Omahas and Toledos where the risk, if any, is minimal.

It's time Congress ended the pork barrel nature of the homeland security grants. Lawmakers should require DHS to conduct a comprehensive capabilities assessment, and should focus future funds to those 30 or so states and cities where the vulnerabilities are many and the consequences of a terrorist attack are high. At a minimum, lawmakers should stop taking money from key security programs and putting those funds in ineffective grant programs.

The threat from al Qaeda is as real and as imminent as ever. The time for talk is over. It is time to be serious.

Matt A. Mayer is a visiting fellow with The Heritage Foundation, former senior official at DHS, and author of "Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway."

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First Appeared in Examiners papers