NORTH POLE, ALASKA–As I was driving through this town of less than 1,600 people just outside of Fairbanks the other day, an overwhelming sensation came over me–of safety. Or at least that’s what Congress wanted me to feel. Thanks to a senseless, but sadly typical, formula for spending federal homeland-security dollars, North Pole, Alaska, has been awarded more than half a million dollars for homeland-security rescue and communications equipment. This just in case the terrorists decide to try to shut down Santa Claus Lane. Fortunately, I am in a position to make a frontline report–all seems quiet.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is irritating certain U.S. senators by insisting that how federal homeland-security spending is allocated should have some relation to the risk of a terrorist attack in any given area. Where he has the authority to act on his own, Chertoff has pushed his department toward rationality. He moved, for instance, to limit the cities eligible for port-security grants to 66 from 366, thus eliminating Martha’s Vineyard from the list (and exposing the extended Kennedy clan to attack by terrorist yacht). But Congress controls how homeland-security grants for first responders are doled out to the states, and its attitude is, “Unless we waste money, the terrorists will win.”
Immediately after 9/11, Congress wrote a homeland-security spending formula into the Patriot Act, one of the provisions of that law that actually is a mistake. It says that every state gets .75 percent of the funding from two enormous federal grant programs that spend well over $1 billion a year. That eats up 40 percent of the funding. The other 60 percent is allocated on the basis of population, which is one risk factor for a terror attack, but only one. In other words, in a homeland-security effort that should be built on intelligence and risk analysis, Congress has created a system that is almost entirely random and beholden to the dictates of logrolling and pork-barrel spending.
This is a boon not just to North Pole, but to places like Wyoming. According to Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute, the Equality State has only .17 percent of the nation’s population, but gets .85 percent of federal homeland-security grants. That works out to $37.74 per capita for Wyoming, while New York state gets $5.41 per capita. De Rugy reports that Washington, D.C., is the only location that is both among the top 10 grant recipients and on a list of the 10 most at-risk localities.
Throwing around money in absurd fashion has resulted in, naturally enough, absurdities–$18,000 for Segway scooters for the bomb squad in Santa Clara, Calif.; $30,000 in Lake County, Tenn., to buy a defibrillator to have on hand at high-school basketball games; $98,000 on training courses in Lenawee County, Mich., which no one bothered to attend. And on it goes. Billions of dollars in the grants haven’t been spent on anything because they are gummed up in the bureaucratic pipeline, partly because some localities don’t have the foggiest idea what to do with the money.
The House recently passed a bill to rationalize the funding formula, basing it almost entirely on risk-assessment by DHS. States would have to submit applications for grant money to address specific risks, and DHS would evaluate them accordingly. This is the basic approach advocated by the 9/11 commission. But the Senate has balked. Small-state senators have a disproportionate sway there, and last week they rejected the House approach, preferring a barely improved version of the status quo. These senators can’t imagine any reason for being in Washington other than to shove lucre back to their home states–for whatever reason.
If Congress can’t straighten out the funding formula, maybe it will have to try a different approach, and relocate people from threatened urban areas to places like North Pole. We can be certain they would be well-secured here.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate