Congress is about to make America less safe. The president shouldn’t stand for it.
The answer may be for George W. Bush to do something he’s never done before: Tell Congress he will veto the homeland-security appropriations bill.
When Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration negotiated a ban on earmarking, the method lawmakers use to set money aside to spend on specific projects in their districts. It was a noble attempt to keep pork-barrel politics out of national security — and allow the administration to spend federal dollars to make all Americans safer rather than siphon-off funds to members’ pet projects.
K Street lobbyists haven’t taken kindly to this state of affairs. Last year, the Senate subcommittee received more than 1,100 requests for earmarks, and the House subcommittee received nearly 2,000. Congress resisted then … but the word now is that lawmakers may be changing their minds.
Apparently, they may decide the 13,997 projects (totaling $27.3 billion) identified by the Citizens Against Government Waste in its 2005 Congressional Pig Book aren’t enough. If it ends the moratorium on earmarks for the 2006 appropriations bill, Congress would open the door to ever more pork barrel spending — just as the 9/11 Commission warned against.
Actually, things may turn out to be far worse than the commission feared. We live in a world of infinite threats and limitless vulnerabilities. Congress can write checks until every member’s hand is cramped, but it will never run out of ways to spend our homeland security dollars. And while lawmakers may embrace the fond hope that indiscriminate spending must prevent the next 9/11, what they will be doing is making a bad situation worse.
There are serious problems with how Washington spends homeland security funds, particularly the way it doles out grants to state and local governments. There’s no way to ensure that the greatest priorities are funded first. Rural, less populated areas receive a disproportionate amount of money. Some states allocate funds with only a cursory effort to assess risks or strategic need. As a result, too much money is being wasted.
A DHS review of the port security grant program, for example, questioned the merits of “several hundred projects.”
Yes, more changes are needed. But the notion that Congress can do better if it micromanages the money is laughable. Look at how the House handled the appropriations of this year’s highway bill — 4,128 earmarks worth a total of $12.4 billion, including such vital projects as rehabilitating a historic “transportation-related” warehouse on the Erie Canal in Lyons, N.Y. ($600,000).
If Congress keeps its hands out of the cookie jar, the president has shown he can and will fix the problem. Under the guidance provided by the president in Homeland Security Directive 8, the department is creating a system to set national standards, evaluate readiness and allocate funds based on risk and strategic priorities.
At the same time, claims that homeland-security dollars are being splurged on everything from leather jackets to garbage trucks appear to be overstated. Matt Mayer, acting director of the DHS office that hands out the state grants, notes that his division has undergone 14 major audits. None have found widespread or systemic cases of fraud or fiscal abuse.
The department also is accused of being sluggish and inept in managing grants, but these criticisms appear to be exaggerated. Reports by the Homeland Security Inspector General and Congress’s General Accountability Office concluded that management of first-responder grant programs has improved.
To stop Congress from turning strategic funding into pork-barrel politics will require unprecedented measures.
Over the five years of his presidency, Bush seldom has so much as threatened a veto. But if homeland-security appropriations are opened up like the “wild west,” the only solution to save the Congress from itself is for the president to flourish the veto pen.
If President Bush makes the point that he would rather veto the homeland security appropriation than let members waste money, subvert national priorities, increase the deficit and give a win to the terrorists, than perhaps the Congress will listen.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a senior fellow for national security and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation and co-author of the book “Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom.”
James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.