Former Congressman Bob Barr has an opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today on the issue of homeland security grants, where he questions whether the recent reforms to the grant allocation process are likely to improve the process:
Even though the grant program’s spending history has been, in the words of one Department of Homeland Security official, quoted anonymously recently in a national newspaper, “Neanderthalic” and “sophomoric,” the new formula announced this month by DHS chief Michael Chertoff is unlikely to have a major remedial impact.
But political forces, including intervention by congressional appropriators such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who heads the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, will almost certainly continue to thwart real efforts to reform the process.
Barr then cites the familiar and well-worn examples of misspent funds: dumptrucks in Newark, leather jackets for DC cops, etc., etc. – and uses these examples to argue that he doesn’t expect the homeland security grant programs to improve any time soon.
This analysis is flawed in two key ways:
First, I’ve seen no evidence that these anecdotes are symptoms of systemic problems across the homeland security grant process. If there were systemic problems, then why is it that critics recite the same 5-10 examples over and over again when making their case?
Second, the editorial fails to make the distinction between the various grant programs within the Department of Homeland Security. The article is ostensibly about Chertoff’s recent announcement about the grant formula for the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), but many of the anecdotal examples of spending that he gives were undoubtedly the result of grants provided from other pools of money, such at the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP). By blurring the multiple programs together, he attacks the problem with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.
There’s no doubt that money has been wasted in the homeland security grant process since 9/11. But that’s a reason to fix the process, as DHS is correctly trying to do, rather than to tear it down. These minor examples of waste have been blown all out of proportion and taken as proxies for all homeland security spending by critics of the grants. That is worrisome to me, because it threatens the foundation of public support for necessary investments in preparedness – when if anything, we aren’t spending enough money in these areas today.
If Congressman Barr and others want to make that case that we’re spending too much money on homeland security grants today, then they should make that case directly based on principles of fiscal conservatism and/or the argument that terrorism is a diminished threat, rather than oft-told but misleading tales of government waste.