Congressman Bill Pascrell

Representing the 9th District of NEW JERSEY

Dhs Grant Allocation Doesn't Make Sense

Sep 25, 2006

Most Americans agree that New York City and Washington, D.C., are the leading contenders for a future terrorist attack. Likewise, most Americans understand that al Qaida maintains an acute determination to carry out colossal assaults — the kind that are possible only in a small number of cities. So it makes sense for the federal government to focus its anti-terrorism grant money on the areas that need it most. At least it makes sense to most Americans. The administration and many in the Republican leadership in Congress, however, have shown that they are utterly baffled by this sensible, practical concept.

There still has been no logical explanation for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s June 1 announcement that New York City and Washington, D.C., should endure a 40 percent cut in homeland security funding this year. No sound rationale has been given to explain why money in these cities for first-responder training, bio-terror detection, communications equipment and emergency management must be severely reduced.

And yet as another election season falls upon us, the president and the Republican leadership cynically, ironically attempt to paint Democrats as being weak on security. While Republicans have failed to fairly allocate funding for homeland security based on risk, they continue to indulge their base instincts and play crass politics with national security.

The department’s grant allocation for 2006 was met with great criticism before the Homeland Security Committee. But the fact is that the Republican-led Congress has failed to implement the recommendation of the 9/11 commission’s call for reforming the grant process. But should we be surprised? As with border security, port security, chemical plant security and other legislation designed to secure the nation from acts of terrorism and natural disasters, the Republican-led Congress has failed to carry out its responsibilities during the conference process between the House and Senate.

Even the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank organization, points out that while $25 billion in federal funds has been appropriated for state and local governments since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, much more needs to be done to improve national preparedness standards. Last year’s catastrophic Hurricane Katrina demonstrated to the world that the federal, state and local governments need to improve their preparedness and accountability of homeland security funding. Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks and one year after Hurricane Katrina, the nation’s infrastructure remains vulnerable, there still is a lack of interoperable communications systems, and our public health system is sorely underprepared to address a pandemic flu or other crisis.

The Department of Homeland Security explained that its grant awards were based on risk scores of terrorist attacks and catastrophic events, and the input of 17 “peer review” panels consisting of homeland security professionals from 47 states. This complex formula carried out behind the scenes increased the difficulty level for many jurisdictions in their application process. One basic way to improve the grant process is to permit states and local governments to actually work with the DHS to improve its justification for receiving funds.

Another way to improve the grant process is to ask the department to develop a tracking system whereby it can monitor where and how states and local governments are spending homeland security funds. Many on the Republican side of the aisle complain, without proof or justification, that state and local governments are not spending the money fast enough. However, state and local governments are trying to adhere to public accountability laws for their procurement as well as the fact that much of the equipment necessary is still on back order.

Finally, Congress should stop trying to secure the homeland on the cheap. The president and the Republican-led Congress have been slashing the budget for state homeland grant programs. Republicans even opposed the inclusion of a $3.1 billion dedicated interoperability fund for state and local first responders in the Homeland Security appropriations bill. Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks and even after last year’s catastrophic hurricane season, the department still does not have a dedicated interoperability grant program. This is unconscionable.

Homeland security should not be a tool for partisan games. What the department needs is real leadership from Congress that steers it in the direction of partnering with and funding the state and local governments who truly are the “eyes and ears” of the nation’s security. This truly is the best way to honor the memories of the heroes of Sept. 11, 2001.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District.