On the rare occasions that presidential candidate John Kerry talks about homeland security, he criticizes President Bush for not spending enough money on it. This is surprising because proposed funding of homeland security for fiscal year 2005 is $47 billion, a staggering 180 percent increase since 2001. Mr. Kerry’s knee-jerk instinct to spend more is hardly unusual. Too many politicians in Washington focus on the level of spending and very few bother considering the quality of spending.
Homeland security should be different. The nation is not endangered when politicians misallocate highway funds, but there will be deadly consequences if cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment take a back seat to pork barrel antics when anti-terrorism funds are allocated. Fortunately, some lawmakers are beginning to focus on quality over quantity. House leaders, for instance, want to overhaul the way the federal government distributes anti-terrorism funds. The Senate, meanwhile, stopped Democrats from adding $20 billion to the $33 billion fiscal year 2005 homeland security spending bill.
Cost-benefit analysis is difficult because homeland security spending continues to be an elusive figure. 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 wasteful spending. Moreover, only $27 billion of the DHS’s $40 billion budget will go to homeland security activities. The remaining $13 billion will finance non-homeland security activities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) food and shelter program.
This haphazard budget system is useful to politicians. Spending initiatives that Congress did not approve when they were outside of DHS are likely to sail through because of their DHS affiliation. For instance, the Senate recently attached $2.9 billion to the fiscal year 2005 homeland security bill in disaster aid for farm states. Thankfully, Republicans blocked Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, from adding another $100 million for fishing enforcement and Coast Guard boater assistance.
More worrisome, much of homeland security money is spent on grants to state and local governments that won’t 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. So, states in rural areas receive a disproportionate amount of grant money. Incredibly, among the top 10 money-receiving states, only the District of Columbia also appears on a list of the top 10 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. The District used the region’s first wave of DHS aid to fund leather jackets for its police force, a computerized car towing system from the mayor’s wish list and summer jobs programs.
While Democrats seem content with the status quo, even hoping to increase the cash flows allocated in this manner, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Chris Cox, a Republican from California, is fighting to change the criteria used to allocate these funds so that they are based on the risk of terrorist attacks and the magnitude of potential damages. But, Democrats like Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, treat these funds like another entitlement program and vehemently oppose this reform.
Finally, large amounts are directed to addressing risks that are obsolete, which is unlikely the most efficient use of federal resources. After September 11, Congress rushed to federalize security screeners at almost all U.S. 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 including a DHS audit that showed that passenger screening by the TSA doesn’t keep explosives and weapons off commercial aircraft. This is not trivial since the bureaucracy will cost $5.3 billion in fiscal year 2005.
Pointing out TSA’s failures, House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, Republican of Florida, 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. Yet Democrats, who have been aggressively trying to create as many new unionized federal employees as they could, already announced that they will stop airports from booting TSA’s workers. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, even introduced a bill to repeal the opt-out provision.
Spreading pork, opposing rational cost-benefit analysis and creating unionized federal employees won’t make us safer. Is it too much to ask that homeland security spending actually have some connection with policies that reduce the threat of terrorism? Is creating union jobs more important than having the best screeners possible? Let’s hope Mr. Kerry is forced to answer these questions during the second presidential debate.
Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.