Weak Defense of Homeland Security Grants

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Last week, the House passed a homeland security appropriations bill slashing funding for grants to states and localities. The New York Times has now noticed and unleashed an indignant editorial:

House Republicans talk tough on terrorism. So we can find no explanation — other than irresponsibility — for their vote to slash financing for eight antiterrorist programs. Unless the Senate repairs the damage, New York City and other high-risk localities will find it far harder to protect mass transit, ports and other potential targets.

The programs received $2.5 billion last year in separate allocations. The House has cut that back to a single block grant of $752 million, an extraordinary two-thirds reduction. The results for high-risk areas would be so damaging — with port and mass transit security financing likely cut by more than half — that the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King of New York, voted against the bill as “an invitation to an attack.”

Only a few months ago, Times editorials accused King of trying to “hype” and “stoke” fear of homegrown Muslim terrorism. It’s sort of touching to see them get behind his fearmongering when the beneficiaries are local firefighters, police, and other local interests.

But the editorial has trouble worse than hypocrisy. For starters, it’s light on facts. Its accounting seems to omit over $320 million in funds for local firefighters that a floor amendment put in the bill. It also fails to mention that the bill eliminates a formula that ensures that homeland security funds are distributed to every state. Because it means that counterterrorism spending is highest per-capita in rural areas where the threat from terrorism is lowest, homeland security watchers have long attacked that minimum funding provision. So while this bill would indeed cut homeland security funds going to New York, it would also mean that New York gets more of the remaining funds.

More importantly, the Times evidently did not try too hard to find an explanation for the cuts once they settled on irresponsibility, given that Republican appropriators readily offered one: the funds are wasteful. Rather than explain why they think the money is well spent (my definition of responsibility), the editorial conflates spending on security with security itself. It says the cuts will be “damaging,” but it cites only damage to the budgets of recipient agencies, not their purpose.

In fact, the threat of terrorism is so low in the United States and the efficacy of the funds in mitigating it so uncertain that the right amount of homeland security spending in most parts of the United States is none. That is especially true now that we are roughly a decade removed from the September 11 attacks, which spawned a massive increase in homeland security grant-making. That splurge was meant to bolster our ability to defend against what has proved a massively inflated threat of catastrophic terrorism; it was not meant to be a permanent subsidy to state and local governments.

New York City is uniquely threatened, but that does not mean that federal taxpayers should foot the bill. The federal government should collect intelligence on terrorists and hunt them down. Local and state officials should use that information to determine the right amount of local security spending. They have to ask whether normal policing funds, school spending, or slightly lower taxes are worth sacrificing for a new camera or chemical clean-up suit. Federal grants, because they are buried in a massive budget and partially deficit-funded, dilute our ability to perceive those tradeoffs. They also heighten fear of terrorism by encouraging state and local interests to overstate their peril to win the grants, as the editorial demonstrates.

It ends by instructing the Senate to “stand up for security over politics” and restore funding to past levels. But these decisions should be made politically. We give power over security policy to politicians — rather than leaving it exclusively to unelected bureaucrats — because these decisions are important. That is a product of design, not an accident. The notion that security is too important for politics is backwards.

Luckily, the attempt to divorce security policy from electoral politics is a pretense. The Times is engaging in politics by asking for funds. They aim to politically punish those that oppose their preferred policies. If the Senate restores most of the grant funds, as it likely will, it will do so for sound political reasons.