- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

The chairman of a House committee yesterday challenged Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to explain how his agency’s budget was adequate to guard against a terrorist attack or another Katrinalike disaster, saying “we cannot continue to protect the homeland on the cheap.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said President Bush’s proposed $35 billion Homeland Security budget does not address necessary funding for key programs and leaves the nation vulnerable to terrorists and natural disasters.

“Millions of lives are at stake,” Mr. Thompson said.

Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the committee’s ranking Republican, also questioned whether the department’s budgeting process needed revamping, saying agency officials were basing spending increases on a 2003 budget “guesstimate” when the agency was formed.

“Should we, rather than work within the box, create a larger box?” Mr. King asked, noting that White House spokesman Tony Snow said on Thursday the administration was trying to do the best it could with scarce resources.

“If we’re at war with Islamic terrorism, the resources for Homeland Security should not be scarce,” he said. “It should not be just another Cabinet department. … With a $2.9 trillion budget, we should be able to find a few billion more for homeland security. Either we’re at war with Islamic terrorism or we’re not.”

Both lawmakers also expressed concern over what they called a delay in implementing a $1 billion communications system for emergency workers. They described the program as “critical” to the nation’s first responders in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

“The inability to communicate hampers the ability to respond to an event and creates further confusion,” Mr. King said. “I’m equally concerned by the delay in getting the administration of this grant program up and running.”

In his second appearance before Congress in two days to defend the budget, Mr. Chertoff noted it represented an 8 percent increase over last year and again described the 2008 budget proposal as “sound, simple and ample.”

“It reflects the president’s very strong commitment … to continuing to make sure we have the tools and resources that we need to enhance our security but in a way that balances our freedom and our prosperity,” Mr. Chertoff said.

But Mr. Thompson said that while Mr. Chertoff thinks the 2008 budget proposal protects the nation’s people and critical infrastructure, improves emergency preparedness and response, and improves the operation and management of the department, he was not convinced.

He noted that last year, the entire nation “was disgusted with the atrocious response to Hurricane Katrina” and confidence in the department was at an all-time low. He said it was “evident” the department was not prepared to handle another catastrophic terrorist attack or natural disaster.

“This may be a new year, but in some instances, Mr. Secretary, it feels like deja vu,” Mr. Thompson said. “I do recognize some significant increases in the areas such as cyber and border security; unfortunately, I fear that behind the increases lurks some problems rather than answers.”

He said the budget eliminates funding for local law-enforcement terrorism-prevention programs, proposes significant cuts in grants to first responders in all 50 states and U.S. territories, and would zero out funding for grants to metropolitan medical systems that he said would be needed to prepare for the mass casualties in the event of a disaster.

Mr. Thompson also said he was concerned whether the budget adequately addresses why the department ranked at the bottom for the second time in nearly every category of the Office of Personnel Management Employee Satisfaction Survey.

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