Politics & Policy

Risky Business

Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, are on a media tour to accompany the final report of the commission’s members. Although the members completed their official work last year, they decided to issue a report card on how well the government has implemented their recommendations. And they have given Washington a much-deserved “F” on the allotment of homeland-security grants.

Since 2001, the federal government has disbursed over $8 billion in grants to “first responders”–policeman, firemen, and emergency medical technicians. The importance of those funding decisions should be obvious, given that they touch on matters of life and death–and, in the event of a terrorist attack, life and death on a potentially grand scale. Yet Congress has failed–and looks as though it is about to fail again–to send first-responder grants where they are likely to do the greatest good.

The sad reality is that we will never have enough money to grant every request for assistance and protect ourselves against every conceivable threat. Given our limitations, the rational thing would be to let our spending be guided by an objective risk assessment, giving priority to areas where the odds of an attack–and the likely consequences of attack–are highest. That is the view of the officials at the Department of Homeland Security, and a consensus opinion of security experts.

But in Congress, reason counts for little when pitted against parochial interests. The system our legislators have devised–and which remains in effect today–entitles each state to 0.75 percent of the available grant money. That accounts for some 40 percent of the total, with the remaining 60 percent distributed according to population. The consequence of this formula is to give disproportionate funding to small states and territories with comparably little exposure to terrorist attack. 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. And these grants are often spent in ways that have only the most tangential connection to homeland security. Consider the town of North Pole, Alaska. With a total population of 1,570, it probably isn’t on al Qaeda’s hit list–but that didn’t stop it from receiving $557,400 to install rescue and communications equipment.

A brave few in Congress are trying to stop this madness. Under the leadership of Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King of New York, the House adopted–by a vote of 409 to 10–an amendment to the Patriot Act reauthorization bill that would reduce most states’ guaranteed minimum to 0.25 percent and require that the remaining money be disbursed according to the Department of Homeland Security’s risk evaluations. Yesterday, Kean and Hamilton endorsed this amendment.

The House plan is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not flawless. To begin with, it allows border states a 0.40 percent minimum, even if they are at low risk of attack. That concession may have been an effort to win the support of Maine senator Susan Collins, whose state borders Canada and who has long been a stumbling block on the path to risk-based assessment. If so, the attempt appears to have failed. The House’s bill must be reconciled with the Senate’s version, and in order for the amendment to survive the conference committee it must win the support of six senators. Insiders close to the negotiations tells us that the amendment’s backers are one vote short and that it is Ohio Republican Mike DeWine who is the pivotal vote. Our sources believe DeWine has committed to Senator Collins that he will not support the amendment without her okay.

“When our security is at stake,

nothing less than 100 percent

should satisfy us.”

If the amendment is defeated, our next hope is that Senators John Cornyn and Dianne Feinstein–who have proposed a separate Senate bill, unrelated to the Patriot Act reauthorization, that mirrors the House reform–will succeed in shepherding their legislation to passage. But why should we stop with the House’s proposal? Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute calculates that, under that plan, some 79 percent of funds would be allotted according to risk assessment. In less important matters, that number would be good enough for government work. But when our security is at stake, nothing less than 100 percent should satisfy us. The first step to achieving that goal is eliminating the state minimum altogether.

Alas, such a common-sense outcome is all but politically unthinkable in Washington.


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