March 21, 2005 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security
There are serious problems with the grants Washington doles out to state and local governments-but the way the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) manages its checkbook is not one of them. Charges of fraud and inept management are overblown. Complaints about a lack of strategic direction, on the other hand, are not. DHS has a plan to fix the problem, but Congress must also do its part or homeland security grants will become, as the 9/11 Commission warned, little more than "pork barrel" entitlements.
Claims that homeland security dollars are being splurged on everything from leather jackets to garbage trucks appear to be overstated. As Matt Mayer, acting director of the office in DHS that hands out the state grants notes, his office has undergone 14 major audits. None have found widespread or systemic cases of fraud or fiscal abuse.
DHS is also accused of being sluggish and inept in managing grants. These criticisms also appear to be exaggerated. A report by the DHS Inspector General, who has shown little reticence to criticize the Department, found a number of bottlenecks, but most were on the part of state and local governments that were slow to determine what they needed, authorize expenditures of funds, and find suppliers who could quickly deliver services and equipment. Likewise, a recent report by the General Accountability Office concluded that management of first responder grant programs has improved.
Still lacking, however, is a means to ensure that the greatest priorities are funded first. Right now too much money is being wasted. A DHS review of the port security grant program, for example, questioned the merits of "several hundred projects" related to port security. Rural, less populated areas often receive a disproportionate amount of money. Some states allocate funds with only a cursory effort to assess risks or strategic need.
DHS has a program in place to address many of these issues. Under the guidance provided by the President in Homeland Security Directive 8 (HSPD-8), the Department is creating a system to set national standards, evaluate readiness, and allocate funds based on risk and strategic priorities.
Congress can help speed the effort to make grants more efficient and effective-mostly by not throwing more money at the problem until a system is in place that can prevent the wasting of scarce resources. Congress should just say "no."
Congress should say "yes" to passing legislation that would codify HSPD-8, establishing in law a means to build a national preparedness system that will make all Americans safer.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.