The Magazine

The High Price of Homeland Security

To solve a big problem requires a big budget.

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By FRED BARNES
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DEMOCRATS--some, not all--are playing a cynical game on homeland security. At their instigation, Congress passed a $5 billion expenditure last August supposedly for homeland security. It came with a hitch: President Bush was required to spend all or none of the money, but only about half the funds were to beef up security efforts. A portion would finance a new facility for the worm and bug collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Other funding would pay for fighting forest fires and implementing election reform. The president decided to spend none of the money. Then in January, the president blocked another $5 billion Democratic proposal for homeland security. This time all the money would have gone to actually improving security, though little of it would arrive in time to be used in 2003.

If a new terrorist attack occurs, Democrats are poised to blame the Bush administration for not doing--and not spending--enough on homeland security. But there's more than mere political risk in this for the White House and congressional Republicans. There's a serious, substantive question: Is the Bush administration spending sufficiently on homeland security? Frugality is a fine trait and saying a loud "no" to those clamoring for more federal funds is normally the appropriate response. Now, though, we're in a perilous war against terrorism, and scrimping may not be wise.

True, the administration hasn't exactly adopted an austerity budget for homeland security. Democrats insist the president would raise spending less than one percent in 2004. But that's the case only if Department of Defense outlays on homeland security, which are declining, are included. As for the agencies that make up the Department of Homeland Security, the president has in fact called for an increase to $34.6 billion from $32.2 billion, a 7.6 percent hike.

When Senate Democrats led by Robert Byrd tried in January to tack on $5 billion, the White House dispatched a letter declaring additional spending "unnecessary." Much of it "could not even be obligated in the remaining months of this year," the letter said. The funds sought by the president for 2003 "are sufficient to address homeland requirements and, in many cases, are the most that can be absorbed responsibly in the remaining months of the fiscal year." Senate Republicans went along with this. But notice the caveat. New funds couldn't be put to use "in many cases"--not all cases.

Forget the demagoguery of Democratic congressional leaders Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi. They sent Bush a letter in mid-February advocating an unspecified amount of new spending. They claimed it's "indefensible" that the president hasn't made "funding for homeland security your top priority. Instead, you advised Americans to buy duct tape, plastic sheeting and bottled water." Most of the spending targets Daschle and Pelosi cited probably couldn't use the money in 2003. But they do mention one that could--"first responders" who could utilize aid quickly through block grants to the states. And the two Democrats reminded Bush of the "heightened threats" of new terrorist attacks.

Indeed, the threat of another attack is about the only thing most Democrats and the White House agree on. Nearly everyone I've talked to in the administration and practically every witness at congressional hearings says another attack is inevitable, particularly if Iraq is invaded. Since September 11, 2001, the administration has done a brilliant job of thwarting terrorists. Bush officials have also been awfully lucky (recall the shoe bomber's inability to light a fuse). But absolute security hasn't been achieved and never will. Budget director Mitch Daniels told Congress on February 4: "There is not enough money in the galaxy to protect every square inch of America and every American against every conceivable threat that every hateful fanatic in the world might conjure up." True.

That doesn't mean more can't be done now to improve homeland security. Democratic senator Joe Lieberman last week proposed $16 billion in extra spending, saying Bush has "been too slow, too protective of the status quo, and too unwilling to back up tough talk with real resources." I asked Michael Scardaville, the Heritage Foundation's homeland security expert, to appraise the Lieberman proposal. He concluded the $16 billion figure was ridiculous, said the creation of a National Homeland Security Academy was a bad idea, and insisted the administration was already moving swiftly in many areas (port security, more border guards, to name two) cited by Lieberman. But he said Lieberman had "some good solid proposals," particularly for strengthening homeland security at the state and local levels.