Politics & Policy

Kingmaker

With Chris Cox’s nomination as SEC chief, the House is set to lose its chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. It isn’t clear exactly when that will happen; but with Reps. Don Young and Pete King lining up to replace Cox, now is a good time for the Republican leadership to start thinking about the merits of these aspirants–and about the need to address a bit of entrenched nonsense in the way homeland-security dollars are spent.

Much of the $50 billion earmarked for homeland security next year will take the form of grants for “first responders” such as police and fire departments. In a rational world, these funds would be disbursed to states in proportion to their risk of terrorist attack and the magnitude of the damages such an attack could cause. New York, for example, would be entitled to a larger share than Wyoming.

Instead, the current program guarantees that each state will receive 0.75 percent of the available grant money, which accounts for some 40 percent of the total disbursement. Although the remaining 60 percent is distributed in proportion to population, the arrangement still disproportionately favors states with comparatively little chance of being attacked.

Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute found that, of the ten places most at risk of terrorist attack, only one–the District of Columbia–is among the top ten grant receivers. She also found that, in 2004, New York State got $4.97 per capita in grant money, as compared with $37.74 for Wyoming and $104.35 for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Worse, the grants are often spent in ways that have little to do with improving homeland security: $98,000 funded training courses at a Michigan fire department that no one attended, and the town of North Pole, Alaska–with its population of 1,570 people–received $557,400 to install rescue and communications equipment.

Now it might just be that North Pole is in al Qaeda’s crosshairs, but the odds are probably against it. Wasteful spending is always to be eschewed, but that is especially true when national security is at issue. Every dollar spent upgrading small-town fire departments is a dollar that isn’t available for our intelligence and defense services to find and kill terrorists.

“Young is one of the most notorious

pork-barrel spenders in Congress.”

Chris Cox understood this basic fact. Last year he introduced legislation to limit the states’ guaranteed grants to 0.25 percent of the available funds–an effort that didn’t go far enough, but was a step in the right direction. The bill died in the Senate, but the White House has supported similar legislation this year. If it is to have any chance of success, Cox’s successor must be someone with a demonstrated commitment to risk-based allocation.

The obvious choice is Peter King of New York, who supported Cox’s legislation last year, and even backed an earlier bill to eliminate the guaranteed minimum grants altogether. His chief rival is the Alaskan Don Young–who, curiously, opposed the creation of the committee he now wishes to chair, fearing that it would impinge on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure he currently heads. Young is one of the most notorious pork-barrel spenders in Congress, and is known chiefly for midwiving that monstrosity of waste, the federal highway bill. The fact that Alaska receives $5 for every $1 it contributes to the federal highway program reveals much about Young’s ability to siphon funds toward his constituency.

In most matters of public policy, that would be merely regrettable. In the case of homeland security, it could be worse.

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