Homeland security has not been a major issue in this presidential campaign, but it should be. There is a real debate going on below the radar, and the stakes could hardly be higher. The nation is not endangered when politicians misallocate highway funds, but there can be deadly consequences if cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment take a back seat to pork-barrel antics in the allocation of anti-terrorism funds.
On the rare occasions when presidential candidate John Kerry talks about homeland security, he tells us that we are not spending enough money on it. During the second presidential debate, for instance, he said that President Bush “chose a tax cut over homeland-security spending.” And right at the beginning of the third debate Kerry even insinuated that the current administration had cut homeland security funding. That may seem surprising to some, since proposed funding for homeland security for FY2005 is $47 billion, a staggering 180 percent increase since 2001. But Kerry’s instinct to spend more is hardly unusual. Too many politicians focus on the level of spending and too few consider the quality of that spending. This is the predictable result of a political process that is too often susceptible to special-interest pleading.
Sadly, there are countless examples of wasteful homeland-security spending, and much of it has been aggressively advocated by Kerry and his friends the Senate Democrats. This has caused a real and important policy dispute. Republican House leaders have begun to overhaul the way the federal government distributes anti-terrorism funds. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate just barely stopped Democrats from adding more than $20 billion in pet projects to the $33 billion FY2005 homeland-security bill. Homeland-security spending has clearly ignited a brawl.
What are lawmakers fighting about? The biggest source of conflict appears to be the desire of some lawmakers to make sure that their state gets its “fair share” of spending, even though smooth spending across states might not be the most rational pattern of expenditure.
The competition for funds has often led to states receiving monies for questionable projects. A substantial portion of new homeland-security spending is being used for grants to state and local governments that are unlikely to have any impact on terrorism. The formula used by DHS to spread federal funds provides every state with a guaranteed minimum amount, regardless of risk or need. As a result, states in rural, less-populated areas receive a disproportionate amount of grant money. Incredibly, among the top ten money-receiving states and districts, only the District of Columbia also appeared on a list of the top ten most at-risk places.
And while state officials are fighting over who will get the biggest share of the security money, reports demonstrate that they are spending these grants on pet projects that have little to do with homeland security. Washington D.C. used the region’s first wave of aid to fund leather jackets for its police force, a computerized car-towing system that the mayor had been promising for three years, and the mayor’s summer-jobs program.
The haphazard budget system might not make sense to outsiders, but it is quite useful to politicians. Spending initiatives that Congress would likely not approve often sail through because of their DHS affiliation. For instance, the Senate recently attached $2.9 billion to the FY2005 homeland-security bill in so-called disaster aid for farm states. Republicans just managed to block Senator Lautenberg (D., N.J.) from adding another $100 million for fishing enforcement and Coast Guard boater assistance, an important issue in New Jersey.
While most lawmakers seem content with the status quo, even hoping to increase the cash flows allocated in this manner, Republicans are moving toward a consensus that the allocation of homeland-security spending needs to be based on more rational, cost-benefit analysis. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Chris Cox (R., Calif.) has been fighting to change the criteria used to allocate these funds so that they are based exclusively on the risk of terrorist attacks and the magnitude of potential damages. Democrats are vehemently opposed to this idea. Senator Leahy, for instance (D., Vt.), a member of the powerful Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, argues that dropping the all-state minimum formula would “shortchange rural states.” For some, apparently, homeland security is becoming another entitlement program.
While cost-benefit analysis is difficult, some areas of spending are so loosely related to homeland security that the math is easy. In addition to helping identify wasteful projects like those mentioned above, it would also help shine a light on the increasing proportion of homeland-security spending that has little if anything to do with terrorism. A large portion of homeland-security spending–$20 billion–takes place outside of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), much of it through agencies known for chronic mismanagement and wasteful spending problems. Even the Department of Homeland Security’s activities are not limited to the protection of the homeland. In FY2005, only $27 billion out of the proposed $40 billion budget will go to homeland-security activities. The remaining $13 billion will finance non-homeland-security activities such as FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program.
Pork is not the only partisan issue. Democrats have also been aggressively trying to create as many new unionized federal employees as they can. After 9/11, Congress rushed to federalize security screeners at almost all U.S. commercial airports by creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Three years after the federal takeover, the 45,000-employee bureaucracy has been inundated with complaints about its performance. DHS just released the results of a four-month audit showing that passenger screening by the TSA needs to be improved to keep explosives and weapons off commercial aircraft.
This is no trivial matter considering that the amount of money allocated in FY2005 will be $5.3 billion. Pointing to TSA’s failures, House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R., Fla.) advocates the return of all airport-security-screener jobs to the private sector. By law, this November, airport managers will be allowed to ask for private screeners under federal supervision. The airport industry has predicted that between 20 and 100 of the nation’s airports will ask to revert to using private screener companies when given the chance.
House Democrats have already announced, however, that “they will stop even one airport from booting TSA’s workers.” Rep. Maloney of New York, who heads the House Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security, and three Democratic co-sponsors introduced a bill (HR 4970) to repeal the opt-out provision.
Sadly, spreading pork, opposing rational cost-benefit analysis, and creating unionized federal employees seems to be the main Democratic homeland-security goal. Two years ago, they opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security because the president sought the authority to fire incompetent workers. Now they want the federal government to hire 100,000 police officers and 100,000 firefighters. And during Friday and Wednesday night’s debate, Senator Kerry claimed that federal employees should be hired to inspect all containers coming into this country. But would that make us safer?
Is it too much to ask that homeland-security spending actually have some connection to policies that reduce the threat of terrorism? Some obviously think so. Certainly during all three presidential debates, John Kerry failed to tell us otherwise.