Lawmakers Disagree on Homeland Security Needs

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With dozens of homeland security-related bills introduced in Congress this year, lawmakers are trying to sort through the difficult task of identifying proposals that are vital to America's defense, filled with wasteful spending or can be shelved for the time being.

The vast number of homeland security initiatives reflect not only efforts by lawmakers to protect their districts but disagreements among experts over what the nation’s top priorities should be, say some analysts.

“There are genuine differences of opinion as to the most effective strategies and tactics for homeland security,” said homeland security expert Eli Lehrer, associate editor of American Enterprise (search), the flagship magazine of the institute that also carries its name.

“Some of these differences are philosophical, and as we have had only two serious foreign-directed attacks on the American mainland -- World Trade Center I and 9/11 -- figuring out what will happen next is mostly a guessing game,” Lehrer told

Already, several measures have made their way through Congress. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., whose home state includes a major port in New Orleans, successfully amended the Coast Guard appropriations bill to include $491 million in additional funding to improve maritime security and safety, national defense and natural resource protection.

"A well-financed and well-equipped Coast Guard (search) is essential to the safety of all Americans, and particularly for we Louisianans who rely heavily on trade and border security each and every day," Breaux said while legislation was being considered this summer.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also successfully pushed her colleagues to include funds to guard Maine’s 611-mile border with Canada and its coastline, which is dotted with large and small harbors.

“I am working to ensure that states like Maine will receive their fair share of homeland security resources,” Collins said in a statement to her constituents.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., proposed a bill to provide $80 million to the Department of Homeland Security (search) to conduct security assessments of chemical facilities around the country.

Corzine, whose state is home to many chemical plants, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency (search) has identified eight facilities in New Jersey that each could put more than one million people at risk if an attack were to occur.

Many efforts to fund homeland security projects have been part of the $29.4 billion 2004 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security. Compromise legislation was passed by the House and Senate on Wednesday.

The Homeland Security bill, like the 13 other annual appropriations measures, is supposed to be signed into law by Oct. 1 to fund the agency for the new fiscal year.

A real focus must be placed on the “nuts and bolts" of putting together the Homeland Security Department or the advantages of placing so many functions under one roof will be lost, said Heritage Foundation (search) homeland security expert James Jay Carafano.

“The key to successful reorganization is momentum. When you get started you want to move as quickly as possible,” he said.

Loads of other bills are still making their way through the legislative labyrinth. Several measures that rework grant opportunities for first responders -- police officers, firefighters and paramedics -- are expected to gain early and favorable consideration because of the widespread sympathy and respect for these workers.

Bills dealing with chemical security and establishing a contingency plan should Congress suffer a catastrophic attack are considered lower-priority items.

Lehrer said he thinks the most important measures to increase homeland security are the Domestic Security Enhancement Legislation (search), also called Patriot Act II, and a missile defense system, which he regards as key to homeland security though it is a project in the Defense Department.

Lehrer added that lawmakers should focus on efficiently using and distributing America’s emergency resources from one central location. So far, a modest agreement exists among lawmakers toward this goal, he said.

“We need something analogous to the integrated emergency management approach that's been quite successful in reducing the death toll and economic effect of natural disasters,” Lehrer said.

Some analysts have criticized lawmakers’ piecemeal attempts to fill gaps in American security, arguing that these efforts have been too focused on district and state interests rather than a systematic effort to guard the nation collectively.

“I think there’s a real lack of consensus" about how to prioritize security needs and identify pork, Carafano said, adding that dealing with terrorism is still a new challenge for lawmakers.

Since many proposals have little chance of passage despite the enduring challenge presented by terrorism, Carafano suggests lawmakers stick to the basics for now and continue fortifying the new Homeland Security Department's structure.