War Stories

Hog Heaven

Don’t be fooled—the homeland security budget is still packed with pork.

The Department of Homeland Security announced this week—and several newspapers duly reported—that it’s going to start giving more anti-terrorist grants to big cities that are really vulnerable to attack, as opposed to small, safe towns that have thus far been reaping the fruits of political patronage. In fact, however, the actual DHS budget numbers reveal no such trend. If anything, big cities may get less money than before.

According to a Jan. 3 press release, this year the DHS will provide $765 million in direct grants to the Urban Area Security Initiative, which “provides resources for the unique equipment, training, planning, and exercise needs of select high-threat urban areas.”

Officials told the New York Times that this will mean fewer instances of the pork-barrel projects that have been corrupting DHS grants—e.g., the $500,000 for chemical-protection and rescue gear in such unlikely hotspots as North Pole, Alaska, and Outagamie County, Wis.

Again, it ain’t necessarily so—for at least six reasons.

More by Pat Oliphant.

First, as the Times story reports (albeit, as Slate’s Eric Umansky observed, many paragraphs down into the piece), the Department of Homeland Security will continue to hand out $550 million in grants “based on a formula that sets a minimum for each state.” So, Congress will still be able to funnel plenty of DHS dollars to North Pole, Outagamie, and dozens of other pork palaces, not least those in Kentucky, the home state of Republican Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. (Rogers has brought home over $200 million in DHS grants since the panel was formed in 2003, about the same amount that New York City received last year.)

Second, the $765 million for “high-threat urban areas” represents a 15 percent cut from the $885 million allocated last year. Incidentally, this isn’t the Bush administration’s fault. DHS requested $1 billion for 2006, which would have been a 15 percent increase; Congress slashed the program. (For more on these numbers, click here.)

Third, it’s a stretch to call some of these areas “urban,” much less “high-threat.” DHS has identified 35 areas that are eligible to apply for these grants. They include not only the natural choices (New York City; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and so forth), but also Honolulu, Hawaii; Jacksonville, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; and a circle that encompasses Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., the suburbs of Independence, Olathe, and Overland Park, and a “buffer” of 10 miles extending beyond that circle.

Fourth, the $765 million includes money (how much is unclear) to sustain projects already begun in 11 additional areas that the DHS no longer considers high-threat. These include Phoenix, Ariz.; Toledo, Ohio; Tampa, Fla.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Louisville, Ky. It may be no coincidence that congressional delegates from all these areas serve on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee—and, in some cases, hold senior positions on the full committee as well. In other words, these legislators are not going to let these towns be dropped from the list once their projects run dry, and the DHS officials who drew up the list know this. Or, if they can’t block the deletions, they’ll pick up some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants that will still be available on the state-by-state formula.

Fifth, none of these grants or budget games tells us squat about whether the homeland will be more secure. The $765 million in high-threat grants and the $550 million in state-formula grants do not include an additional $1.6 billion in grants for state and local fire departments, law-enforcement anti-terrorist squads, or emergency management agencies. It’s unclear who decides how, or on what criteria, that money gets distributed.

Finally, it’s really unclear how any of this grant money gets used. State and city agencies apply for the grants; someone in the DHS Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness picks the winners and writes the checks. Does DHS impose any oversight, monitoring, or post-grant assessment? Outside of New York City, which has more expertise than the feds, do many state and local governments even know what threats they face or how to ask for what they need? If Hurricane Katrina is anything to go by, both sides—the granters and the grantees—are in a fog. However the money gets divvied up, whatever formula is applied, the whole grant program is prime acreage for pork heaven.