Homeland Security Funding: Urban Area Grant Maze

Intense debate is sure to continue over the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to cut funding for New York and Washington, D.C., among other cities. Despite Secretary Michael Chertoff’s powerful arguments — New York and D.C. already received lots of money, this year’s cut actually brings funding for New York more in line with the past average (last year being a spike), other funds exist to help these jurisdictions — officials in and from these cities are likely to remain incredulous.

We know D.C. and New York have been al Qaeda targets, not only on September 11, 2001, but at other times, and we know they are not yet secure. These are the simple facts Mr. Chertoff’s new allocation formula does not seem to recognize.

But before thinking about a better approach, it is informative to place the Urban Area Security Initiative in perspective. This program costing about $800 million needs to be placed in the context of an overall federal homeland security budget of somewhat more than $40 billion, with just under $5 billion of that in the form of various grants to states and localities. Included in that latter pot are other programs, one with an allocation scheme that guarantees a minimum to each state and results in the often-noted absurdity of a state such as Wyoming receiving 5 to 10 times as many homeland security dollars per capita as many high-risk states.

The other parts of the $40 billion budget can be divided up, crudely and approximately, into a half-dozen chunks of about $5 billion to $6 billion each. Most of these categories have doubled or tripled in overall funding since September 11 (given that spending for the same category of activities together totaled about $15 billion before 2001).

One pot is for border security — the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard and so on. A second is for processing people and goods at official points of entry. A third is for transportation security. A fourth is for biosecurity against possible crises such as anthrax attacks and is administered largely through The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health.

The equivalent of a fifth can be constructed out of two different parts — the Federal Emergency Management Agency on one hand and Justice Department activities such as relevant FBI activities on the other (their combined funding is to about $6 billion).

A final category (costing a good deal more than the others) is spent by the Defense Department on global base security and preparing its forces for possible operations in the event of attacks on the homeland.

So clearly, the $800 million in question is very modest when seen against the broad range of homeland security activities. One question many have is why only $4 billion to $5 billion a year overall flows from Washington to the states. Some, including a recent Council on Foreign Relations task force headed by Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, have called for allocating up to $20 billion annually to the nation’s localities — to ensure interoperable communications, obtain state-of-the-art protective gear for most first-responders, ensure frequent training for mock-terrorist incidents, and so forth. But the Bush administration has been right to resist intense political pressure for such huge increases in first-responder-related spending. Most of the above ideas would be inefficient; it makes more sense, for example, to have small teams in each major metro area capable of acting in chem-bio environments, and it makes more sense to have mobile interoperable communications headquarters than to give every first-responder a new common-frequency radio. Nor should the federal government be paying for normal first-responder activities that are the rightful responsibility of states and cities.

Moreover, as a general principle, we should not emphasize cleaning up after an attack more than preventing the attack. Most of the large increases proposed for states and localities would deal with consequence management after terrorists had struck. To be sure, even the best prevention efforts sometimes fail. And we must be able to mitigate harm from any attack that accomplishes its initial objective.

But as we all know, there are many unmet needs still in the other broad areas of above-noted homeland security activity that focus largely on prevention. Better to use the marginal additional homeland security dollar to secure borders, secure dangerous materials, and track down dangerous terrorists before they strike than to focus primarily on after-attack response.

All that said, returning to the issue of the day, the urban area security initiative is too small. Representing less than 2 percent of national homeland security funding, it is the most important vehicle for the federal government to help the nation’s highest-risk localities prepare for possible attack. Al Qaeda has to date shown a clear preference for attacking America’s highest-visibility landmarks and causing mass-casualty effects. To be sure, it could in the future emulate Timothy McVeigh and adopt a “heartland” strategy of going after smaller cities. That is why some help for a number of smaller municipalities and jurisdictions makes sense. Also, we need to worry about the nation’s food and water supplies being targeted in rural America.

But block grants that guarantee a minimum to each state do not make as much sense as risk-based approaches. That is why the urban area security initiative, despite its currently flawed methodology that ranks D.C. so low in risk, is the right way to go. And for the reasons noted above, big cities do demand more protective efforts against any al Qaeda-like foe than do other parts of the country. So rather than pit New York or D.C. against Chicago or Los Angeles, we should ensure enough money to address the most acute needs of most major cities. The urban area program should be at least doubled.

We should also modify the allowable purposes of funds allocated through this program. Right now, they seem focused too much on one-time capital investment. But homeland security is an activity that, like infantry combat, requires lots of boots on the ground.

For example, New York has done the right thing in creating a counterterror unit within its police force. That unit can monitor key sites, track suspected cells and exchange information with regular officers on the beat to gain early warning of possible new plots in the works. In other words, it properly emphasizes prevention more than consequence management — and it can do this job better than local FBI offices given its knowledge of the city and its direct links to other cops on patrol. Most of its costs are in salaries, however. More cities should emulate New York, albeit on a smaller scale — and none of them should be punished in DHS grant allocation decisions because their costs show up on payrolls rather than procurement orders.

DHS makes strong individual arguments to defend its decisions of last week. But they do not add up to a persuasive case, and the nation’s strategy for helping its cities prepare against terrorist attack does not yet add up to a coherent whole. It is time to fix that before we are struck again.