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National Review

Introducing Pork-Barrel Homeland Security

By Kate O'Beirne

August 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 National Review, Inc., Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

National Review
Volume 55; Issue 15

A little here, a lot there . . .

SINCE the attacks of September 11, federal spending on assistance to the states for law enforcement, emergency services, and firefighting has increased by more than 1,000 percent. The total amount spent on beefing up the ability of "first responders" to prevent, guard against, and respond to a terrorist attack has reached almost $20 billion. With Congress in charge of dividing up the considerable pie, local authorities in all 50 states and the territories have enjoyed a slice. In typical Washington fashion, states represented by powerful members have received generous helpings. In the name of funding first responders, Congress has been responding first and foremost to its own political interests. Because Congress has re-sponsibility for everything but takes responsibility for nothing, it is President Bush who will be held accountable if the communities most in need of federal help are not fully prepared.

Railing against the dire straits of under-funded local emergency workers has become standard fare on the Democratic presidential candidates' circuit through the states. Sen. John Kerry has a pithy term for the problem: The "pre-paredness gap" is the administration's biggest failing when it comes to "playing it straight on national security," Kerry told a New York audience in July. "Just as we did not have a viable plan for Iraq after the capture of Baghdad, today we still do not have a real plan and enough resources for preparedness against a terrorist attack." If the willingness to spend huge amounts of money qualifies one as a hawk on domestic defense, a flock of Democrats has out-hawked Bush.

A recent report by a Council on Foreign Relations task force-entitled "Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared"-recommended that Congress spend $100 billion more on first responders than currently planned, while allowing that "the United States could spend the entire gross domestic product and still be unprepared, or wisely spend a limited amount and end up sufficiently prepared." Early signs are that Congress is inclined toward the first option.

In line with congressional spending as usual, it's not just the states that have been enjoying the homeland-security windfall. Last year, Puerto Rico received $32 million in domestic-preparedness grants, putting it ahead of 23 states. (This after Puerto Rico barred those other "first responders"-the U.S. Navy-from doing live-fire training at Vieques.) The U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands received a total of $22 million. This year, Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the powerful chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to include rural communities, like his own, in the development and review of all state preparedness plans. DHS was also directed to pay particular attention to the needs of emergency medical units in rural areas, and to report posthaste on the progress of the racially-sensitive "minority emergency preparedness demonstration program." A Republican congressional aide points out, "Members get no points for worrying about New York, they get points for worrying about Appalachia."

USA Today recently reported on the unexpected largesse some puzzled local communities are enjoying. Christian County, Ky. (pop. 100,000), learned it was getting $36,800 in homeland-security funding for equipment that would be used to respond to a chemical, biological, or radiological emergency. The local emergency-services director no doubt doesn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but says that the high-tech equipment does not particularly suit the more routine needs of his small, rural community. The award of $900,000 to the Steamship Authority in Massachusetts, which runs ferries to Martha's Vineyard, had the local harbor-master confessing, "Quite honestly, I don't know what we're going to do, but you don't turn down grant money." Colchester, Vt. (pop. 18,000), now has-courtesy of federal taxpayers-a $58,000 search-and-rescue vehicle that can bore through concrete and search for victims in collapsed buildings.

"A lot of guys on both sides of the aisle only care about getting money for their districts," complains Republican representative Peter King, whose Long Island constituents include thousands of daily commuters to New York City. "I come from Nassau County, I worked with Alfonse D'Amato, I understand pork-barrel spending," he says. "But this shouldn't be the case when it comes to homeland security."

King serves on the recently established House Select Committee on Homeland Security. In Congress, 88 separate panels, committees, and subcommittees have some jurisdiction over the 22 agencies and 180,000 employees of DHS. In the hope of winning over members whose turf was threatened by the new select committee, Speaker Dennis Hastert encouraged many of them to serve on it. Nine Republican members of the committee are chairmen of other committees with jurisdiction over DHS. Whether they are prepared to put aside turf concerns will be tested by a reform proposal being pushed by the committee's chairman, Rep. Chris Cox, a California Republican.

Cox is determined to change the formula for awarding grants to first responders by urging Congress to adopt a threat-based analysis that would allow DHS to judge which communities are most in need. Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge supports the reform. "We are not threatened in an inchoate sense from the entire planet from all sides in all ways," Cox explained in a television interview. "There are specific threats against the United States from specific people with specific capabilities, and we need to make sure our first-response monies are directed to those threats."

On how large those monies should be, Cox disagrees with the Council on Foreign Relations task force. He thinks that it would be "exactly wrong" to commit huge, unsustainable funds to domestic security needs because he believes that the long battle ahead demands a sus-tainable commitment. In addition, Cox is determined to maintain terror-prevention as the first priority of both DHS and the select committee, and to develop "a very sturdy intelligence capacity at DHS." Equipping first responders is an important, but separate, concern.

It's good that Congress isn't in the business of troop deployment abroad. Otherwise, American troops would likely be spread so thinly across the globe-satisfying the individual concerns of individual congressmen-they wouldn't be in suffi-cient strength anywhere to protect the national interest. When domestic defense resources are deployed in Appalachia, they are not available elsewhere to prevent, guard against, or respond to an attack.

With 535 commanders-in-chief on the home front, the threat level for President Bush is elevated.

It's good that Congress isn't in the business of troop deployment abroad.

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