Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 22, 2014

DHS – No hope for a home?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,DHS News,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on May 22, 2014

Yesterday’s Washington Post dumps an Olympic-size swimming pool’s worth of cold water on the future of a (relatively) consolidated headquarters for DHS at the St. Elizabeth site in Southeast D.C.:

The construction of a massive new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, billed as critical for national security and the revitalization of Southeast Washington, is running more than $1.5 billion over budget, is 11 years behind schedule and may never be completed, according to planning documents and federal officials.

It has been a bipartisan affair:

A decade after work began, the St. Elizabeths venture — the capital region’s largest planned construction project since the Pentagon — has become a monumental example of Washington inefficiency and drift. Bedeviled by partisan brawling, it has been starved of funds by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and received only lackluster support from the Obama administration, according to budget documents and interviews with current and former federal officials.

Delays are only making the final price tag rise:

The crippling shortfall in funding has created a vicious cycle, causing delays that in turn inflated the projected price tag as construction costs escalated over time and DHS agencies — still scattered in more than 50 locations across the Washington area — have been signing expensive temporary leases.

The article is full of details regarding difficulties connected with the site.  Also, interesting to at least me, it deploys two narratives about DHS.

The DHS was born at a time when the wounds of Sept. 11 were still fresh and homeland security was the top national priority. The new department melded agencies as diverse as the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aiming to eliminate gaps in coordination and poor communication that had helped make possible the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

By 2004, department officials were complaining that their headquarters on Nebraska Avenue in the District was one-quarter of the size needed. The operations center was small, with limited infrastructure. And with various DHS components dispersed as far as Herndon, Va., the department was wasting millions on leased office space and transportation costs.

These logistical problems slowed the government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to a 2006 terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners with liquid explosives, Chertoff recalled. “People were shuttling back and forth in those critical days after the plot was exposed, and that just made it much more difficult and time-consuming,” he said.

Most of the poor communication and coordination gaps preceding 9/11 existed between agencies not included in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.  To over simplify things, the intelligence community and the military take the lead in fighting terrorism overseas and the FBI generally is out front domestically.  Not to take one iota of importance away from the work of DHS, but it does not get much positive Congressional attention as those entities unless it is politically convenient. And spending billions of dollars on a new headquarters complex for DHS is currently not very politically convenient. Want to bet that the FBI will get a new building before DHS?

The comments regarding logistical problems affecting the Katrina response and the response to the airliner plot are new to me.  I think its a given that having offices spread out over the DC area didn’t make things any easier, but is it a stretch to suggest that the response in New Orleans would have gone that much smoother if only there was a unified headquarters building?

May 1, 2014

DHS: Value received and perceived

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on May 1, 2014

The current Department of Homeland Security annual budget is $46.3 billion. For the roughly 314 million residents of the United States the cost-per-person-per-year is about $147.45.

With our tax payments (and debt service) we jointly cover the expenses of TSA, CBP, FEMA (including the disaster assistance fund), Secret Service, ICE, Coast Guard, NPPD (especially the cybersecurity function),  related research and development, and a bit more.

Through various grants and programs a significant amount of money flows to states and localities.  For example, early this year the rural county where I live received an emergency management grant of $12,500.  The volunteer fire departments and Sheriff department received more.  Even in a small place like this it can be tough to keep track.

I’m not interested in showing you how much I make or pay in taxes, so I won’t share the formula I am using.  But I estimate that in 2013 my wife and I paid into the federal government about $600 that was used to support DHS activities.  Given the per person estimated cost noted above, we could complain we are paying more than our “fair share.”  But given our income and a progressive income tax system, I don’t find it especially unfair.

Still… is the value received worth the value paid?

Our support to DHS is four-times our annual contribution to local public radio.  It’s less than we give our church each month. It’s less than the one-time charitable gifts we made to support recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or Typhoon Yolanda. My father recently visited for a few days. Entertaining him and extended family cost more than our  DHS support for twelve months.

Certainly, the experience of value is much less direct.  I enjoy listening to public radio everyday.  I have a whole host of favorite shows: Prairie Home Companion, On Being, This American Life, the news.  I try to avoid TSA as much as possible. But that does not mean I want TSA to disappear.   As an average citizen — who is seldom water-borne — I have almost no contact with the Coast Guard.  But I have enormous respect for the Coast Guard.  DHS just warned all of us to stop using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.  I use Google’s Chrome.  But I would much prefer that DHS  have the resources it needs to lead domestic cybersecurity instead of DOD.

I have much more familiarity with DHS activities than the average citizen.  So while many assume it is a banal and bloated bureaucracy, I have personally encountered proof.  But I have also been privileged to be in the presence of public servants who demonstrate great creativity, courage, and profound commitment.  In this case I would, if I could, show you a formula for determining value.  But anything roughly accurate is beyond my algebraic competence.

I am left with an impression, less than an assessment of value.

If DHS had to support itself with direct mail solicitations it probably would not get my $600.  But as a portion of the taxes I pay, it feels to me like a bargain.

March 6, 2014

DHS Budget Proposal

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2014

The President has proposed.  This Congress is likely to dispose in a different way.

The FY2015 White House outline calls for a roughly $1.05 billion reduction in the DHS budget to $38.2 billion.  An additional $6.8 billion is targeted at disaster relief.

Early application of green eye-shades seems to suggest Science & Technology, ICE and Coast Guard would lose while cyber would win.  But (again) the Congress is likely to use a considerably different spreadsheet.

According to White House documents:

The Budget provides $2.2 billion for State, local, and tribal governments to hire, equip, and train first responders and build preparedness capabilities. To better target these funds, the Budget proposes eliminating duplicative, stand-alone grant programs, and consolidating them into the National Preparedness Grant Program.

Similar proposals in prior years have not been picked up by Congress.

Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-KY) said in a written statement:

The Committee will take a very close look at the President’s request, conduct vigorous oversight over federal agencies, and go line-by-line through the budget to make informed and responsible decisions with the taxpayer’s money. It is important to remember that it is the Congress, not the White House, that holds the ‘power of the purse’ and will decide where to cut, where to sustain, and where to invest tax dollars to the most benefit of the American people.

More and, probably, different yet to come.

December 4, 2013

Expanding or Diluting Our Preparedness Priorities

Today’s guest blogger is “Donald Quixote”  Don comments frequently on Homeland Security Watch.  He writes under what he likes to call his nom de guerre because his agency frowns on its employees posting material without agency approval. 

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The House Committee on Homeland Security recently passed the Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act (HR 5997)/ (HR 1791) authorizing the expansion of the use of existing grant programs for enhancing medical preparedness, medical surge capacity and mass prophylaxis capabilities during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Reportedly, it does not furnish any additional funding, but provides the ability to leverage the Urban Area Security Initiative and State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The pending bill can be viewed from several different perspectives.  The optimist may view this initial accomplishment as Congress finally addressing a very serious threat of a chemical or biological attack that may be looming, or  – rather more likely — the threat of a serious novel pandemic illness.  The pessimist may view it as the continued, wider distribution of limited resources between numerous partners in the ever-vague world of homeland security (whatever that entails, but that is another conversation).  I tend to believe it is both.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the 2009 H1N1  influenza virus killed 10 times more than previously estimated by the World Health Organization.  A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine estimated the number that died was 203,000.  Although the number appears quite small when compared to the current world population and the momentous number that perished during the H1N1 Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, it remains a relevant number, if accurate, as a warning indicator.

However, how many of us truly appreciate the conceivably massive cascading consequences of a serious novel pandemic threat?

Are MERS, SARS, H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 warning shots over the bow or just natural occurrences that come and go over time without serious implications?

The topic of biosecurity is not new to this blog.  Mr. Bogis and Mr. Wolfe have identified numerous areas of interest regarding the funding and resources already appropriated for biosecurity and biodefense.  There have been valuable discussions and debates regarding the perceived and actual risks and returns on investment.  The practical value of the previous investments and effectiveness of the many programs shall remain the subject of debate until they are partially or fully tested by an incident or event.

In the realm of a serious novel pandemic illness, I controversially continue to argue that it could easily outrank a conventional terrorist attack as a current threat due to the possibly catastrophic consequences to our citizens, critical infrastructure and civil stability on a broader scale.

We can only ignore the low-probability\high-consequence biological attack or serious novel pandemic illness threat until it happens.  Unfortunately, there is a long history of ignoring this threat because of limited resources and impaired strategic vision.

The Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act, if ultimately enacted, may affect some change in this area or at least spark interest in expanded medical preparedness.


 

 

 

June 22, 2013

Doubling the Border Patrol? Not a Smart Idea

Filed under: Border Security,Budgets and Spending,Immigration — by Christian Beckner on June 22, 2013

Immigration reform legislation has been debated for the last couple of weeks on the floor of the Senate, and late last week a compromise emerged – in the form of an amendment from Sen. Corker and Sen. Hoeven – that appears to have secured enough votes for the bill to survive a cloture vote in the coming week and then move to final passage.  This New York Times story provides a good overview of the state of play.

One of the key provisions in the amendment (which is technically being wrapped into a larger substitute amendment) is $30 billion in funding over the next decade to add 19,200 new Border Patrol agents, nearly doubling the size of the Border Patrol from its current staffing level of 21,370 agents.

This proposal is a terrible idea – one that would be wasteful of taxpayers’ money and is not based on sound operational or technical analysis as to what investments are really needed to improve border security.

Before discussing this in depth, let me be clear: I would like to see broad-based and balanced immigration reform legislation be enacted, and it is sensible for a component of that legislation to be focused on border security, as is the case with ‘Gang of 8′ base bill.  Many of the border provisions in the base legislation are reasonable, including proposed investments in technology and infrastructure (although strong oversight is needed on these, given the history of SBInet) and the proposal to increase the number of Customs and Border Protection Officers (CBPO’s, who are different from Border Patrol agents).

However, the proposal to double the number of Border Patrol agents is different, and is something that deserves careful scrutiny by people on all sides of this debate before moving forward.

I have three primary concerns about this provision:

First, adding “boots on the ground” may make for a good soundbite, but it’s a costly and inefficient way to improve border security.   CBP spends around $3.2 billion/year today on personnel costs for the Border Patrol – a figure that doesn’t include the cost to train and equip them.  This $3.2 billion is already a very large chunk of DHS’s budget – as a point of comparison, it’s about 3-4 times greater than what the Department spends overall each year in support of its cybersecurity mission.  A proposal to double the Border Patrol would increase that total to over $6 billion/year in current dollars – and this would be an annual investment for the long-term, because of the difficulties associated with reducing such a workforce once you’ve expanded it.

Second, this proposal is not based on any real analysis about operational needs on the border.  Has anyone assessed what are these additional 19,200 agents going to do, or where are they going to work, or what infrastructure is needed to support them?  Not that I’ve seen, and I doubt that any analysis along these lines has been done.  And if we’re going to be making technology and infrastructure investments (e.g. fixed towers, UAVs, better comms) using funds available elsewhere in the legislation to improve the operational efficiency of the current Border Patrol agents, then why it is logical that we would also need twice as many of them?  As it is, we are already at the point where in some parts of the country, we’re seeing the “diminishing marginal returns” in border security that Secretary Napolitano spoke of a few months ago, exemplified by media reports where Border Patrol agents are fighting constant boredom.   Given this, I think it’s very hard to justify this proposal on its operational merits.

Third, it would be unwise to be spending billions of dollars to double the size of the Border Patrol when many of the other parts of DHS (and other key security-focused agencies) are struggling under the weight of four years of flat and declining budgets, topped off in the last few months by the cuts of sequestration.  For example, the Coast Guard is cutting personnel and continues to be delayed in its acquisition of its next generation of maritime vessels due to budget constraints.  (And keep in mind that the Coast Guard’s maritime border security requirements in the Gulf of Mexico and southern California will likely increase as the southwest land border becomes more secure).  The FBI is expecting that it’s going to need to furlough agents next year because of sequestration.  Nearly every part of DHS has felt the impact of budget cuts by Congress in the last four years – in many cases trimming out needed fat, but now to the point where the cuts are having an operational impact.   But now, suddenly, the Senate is proposing to spend tens of billions of dollars to double the size of the Border Patrol without one iota of analysis.

Given these three factors, I would hope that members of Congress in both parties would rethink this fiscally and operationally unwise proposal, regardless of their position on the broader bill.   There are many better ways to accomplish the shared goal of improved border security.  Some of these are already integrated into the base bill, and others, such as increased resources to investigate overseas human trafficking and smuggling organizations, and increases to the intelligence offices at CBP and ICE, and increases to state and local law enforcement grants in border states, would cost much less but collectively deliver a greater overall benefit to border security.

The agents who currently serve in the Border Patrol are hard-working and patriotic, and deserve our support.  But doubling their ranks doesn’t make any sense, and would be a fiscally irresponsible and operationally uninformed decision by the Congress.

April 11, 2013

The President’s Budget

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on April 11, 2013

You can read the proposed FY2014 Budget here. The President has teed-up $39 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Homeland Security, a decrease of 1.5 percent over the most recently enacted budget.

Under the specific heading for the Department of Homeland Security I was struck by the use of the following phrase, “[This budget]… continues a commitment to core homeland security functions, such as transportation security, cybersecurity, and border security.”  Sounds like DHS is conceived mostly as a boundary-maintaining agency, where boundaries assume a variety of forms.

Reviewing the full document it is interesting how much of what I consider homeland security is mostly part of budgets other than the Department of Homeland Security, especially the National Intelligence Program, Department of Health and Human Services, and even the Department of Transportation.  Starting on page 14 give a particular look at the section on “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure.”

There are other elements worth future attention.  I have several emails out asking questions.  What questions does the budget proposal prompt by you?

FRIDAY UPDATE ON DHS BUDGET SPECIFICS

On Thursday April 11 Secretary Napolitano testified before the House Appropriations committee.  A video is available from the committee website.  Her prepared testimony is available here.  Following are three excerpts that I found interesting.  These are simply in the order that I encountered them in the testimony.

In support of the Administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste, DHS strengthened conference and travel policies and controls to reduce travel expenses, ensure conferences are cost-effective, and ensure both travel and conference attendance is driven by critical mission requirements. During 2012, DHS issued a new directive that establishes additional standards for conferences and requires regular reporting on conference spending, further increasing transparency and accountability. The Department’s FY 2014 budget projects an additional 20-percent reduction in travel costs from FYs 2013–2016.

I understand why this is being done, but it is in my judgment a cause for real regret and almost certainly a case of being penny-wise and pound foolish.  Given the DHS mission there is a need for more travel, engagement, and discussion with state, local and private sector stakeholder… not less.

The Budget re-proposes the National Preparedness Grant Program (NPGP), originally presented in the FY 2013 Budget, to develop, sustain, and leverage core capabilities across the country in support of national preparedness, prevention, and response, with appropriate adjustments to respond to stakeholder feedback in 2012. While providing a structure that will give grantees more certainty about how funding will flow, the proposal continues to utilize a comprehensive process for assessing regional and national gaps; support the development of a robust cross-jurisdictional and readily deployable state and local assets; and require grantees to regularly report progress in the acquisition and development of these capabilities.

Everyone who I have talked to yesterday and today — both advocates and opponents of the NPGP — say there is no chance of it passing Congress.

Following from the testimony is the five-mission overview the Secretary has been repeating mantra-like for awhile now.  I was not a big fan of this at first, but with repetition it is beginning to have its desired affect.

Mission 1: Preventing Terrorism and Enhancing Security – Protecting the United States from terrorism is the cornerstone of homeland security. DHS’s counterterrorism responsibilities focus on three goals: preventing terrorist attacks; preventing the unauthorized acquisition, importation, movement, or use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials and capabilities within the United States; and reducing the vulnerability of critical U.S. infrastructure and key resources, essential leadership, and major events to terrorist attacks and other hazards.

Mission 2: Securing and Managing Our Borders – The protection of the Nation’s borders—land, air, and sea—from the illegal entry of people, weapons, drugs, and other contraband while facilitating lawful travel and trade is vital to homeland security, as well as the Nation’s economic prosperity. The Department’s border security and management efforts focus on three interrelated goals: effectively securing U.S. air, land, and sea borders; safeguarding and streamlining lawful trade and travel; and disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal and terrorist organizations.

Mission 3: Enforcing and Administering Our Immigration Laws – DHS is focused on smart and effective enforcement of U.S. immigration laws while streamlining and facilitating the legal immigration process. The Department has fundamentally reformed immigration enforcement, focusing on identifying and removing criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety and targeting employers who knowingly and repeatedly break the law.

Mission 4: Safeguarding and Securing Cyberspace– DHS is responsible for securing unclassified federal civilian government networks and working with owners and operators of critical infrastructure to secure their networks through risk assessment, mitigation, and incident response capabilities. To combat cybercrime, DHS leverages the skills and resources of the law enforcement community and interagency partners to investigate and prosecute cyber criminals. DHS also serves as the focal point for the U.S. Government’s cybersecurity outreach and awareness efforts to create a more secure environment in which the private or financial information of individuals is better protected.

Mission 5: Ensuring Resilience to Disasters – DHS coordinates the comprehensive federal efforts to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other large-scale emergency, while working with individuals; communities; the private and nonprofit sectors; faith-based organizations; and federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal (SLTT) partners to ensure a swift and effective recovery. The Department’s efforts to help build a ready and resilient Nation include fostering a whole community approach to emergency management nationally; building the Nation’s capacity to stabilize and recover from a catastrophic event; bolstering information sharing and building unity of effort and common strategic  understanding among the emergency management team; providing training to our homeland security partners; and leading and coordinating national partnerships to foster preparedness and resilience across the private sector.

Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee was clear in his opening statement that the President’s budget proposal would be altered.  The Chairman gave particular attention to:

“Once again, the Department has proposed to decimate Coast Guard and ICE funding that supports the men and women who bravely defend our homeland on the frontlines, in favor of headquarters pet projects and controversial research programs.”

“Once again, the budget request uses phony, unauthorized offsets to pay for critical aviation security measures.”

“Once again, the Department has failed to submit a number of plans and reports required by law, which are essential to help this Committee do its work – and do its work well.”

“And once again, this budget submission would add layers of bureaucracy to the already tangled web of agencies under your purview at DHS headquarters.”

Chairman Rogers continued in a prosecutorial — if civil — mien throughout the hearing.  Unfortunately I had a very difficult time hearing the video.  I hope this was a local problem and you do better.

Redundant from L. redundantem (nom. redundans), prp. of redundare “come back, contribute,” lit. “overflow,” from re- “again” + undare “rise in waves,” from unda “a wave”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Philip J. Palin on April 11, 2013

You may have seen the headlines:  Redundant Federal Programs Waste Billions (USA Today).

Or heard something similar:  Latest GAO report reveals 162 areas of redundancy across government (Federal News Radio).

Most of the broadcast news mentioned something about catfish inspectors and each military branch developing its own camouflage  uniform. Conservative or liberal — from inside or outside government — it is the kind of “news” that fails to create any new brain synapses and, probably, calcifies our current neural networks.

This lack of real thinking reflects the way information is headlined and how we typically receive the information, not what GAO is actually reporting.

The Government Accountability Office study released on Tuesday references several Department of Homeland Security practices.  In addition to a list from prior years, two more are highlighted in this most recent report:

Department of Homeland Security Research and Development: Better policies and guidance for defining, overseeing, and coordinating research and development investments and activities would help DHS address fragmentation, overlap, and potential unnecessary duplication.

Field-Based Information Sharing: To help reduce inefficiencies resulting from overlap in analytical and investigative support activities, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the Office of National Drug Control Policy could improve coordination among five types of field-based information sharing entities that may collect, process, analyze, or disseminate information in support of law enforcement and counterterrorism-related efforts—Joint Terrorism Task Forces, Field Intelligence Groups, Regional Information Sharing Systems centers, state and major urban area fusion centers, and High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Investigative Support Centers.

I am sure any post-hoc study of  research-and-development or intelligence-gathering (even more-so intelligence creating) activities will always find a wide range of decisions and actions  hard to defend.   Any careful audit should find hundreds or thousands of hours obviously lost on following bad leads, interminable meetings, unnecessary travel, dysfunctional turf protection, and much, much more (or actually less and less).  A thorough analysis could authoritatively map how one failure led to another and another.

R&D and the intelligence process share a concern with anticipating, even creating the future.  Once we arrive at the future we can usually look back and bemoan (or self-justify) the dead-ends and circuitous paths chosen.   We may even be able to recognize how alternate — preferable? — futures were very close-at-hand, but have now receded in our wake.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that ten years and 10,000 hours are — along with other crucial inputs — prerequisites to “outlier” success.  What  would an audit at five years and 5000 hours find? What does a half-made success look like? Thomas Edison famously said, “I failed my way to success.”

In the commercial world “redundancy” is often called competition.  In biology redundancy is very closely related to diversity.  In engineering and other design applications redundancy is sometimes valued rather than maligned.

This is not to discourage DHS from looking hard at its research-and-development policies.  The improved coordination of field-based information-sharing sounds like a win-win.  But fragmentation, overlap, and duplication are not always net negatives.  Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues found that polycentric governance — featuring considerable fragmentation, overlap, and duplication — is often more effective at achieving policy goals than more centralized and “efficient” structures.

[Redundancy = Bad] is a dangerous heuristic.  Stop using it.

January 17, 2013

Sandy relief as approved by the House

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on January 17, 2013

On Tuesday evening the House of Representatives sent to the Senate a bill to fund a variety of measures related to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The  funding was authorized through an original $17 billion measure ( HR-152) presented by Mr. Rogers, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee .

An additional $33 billion was provided via amendment by Mr. Frelinghuysen.  The Frelinghuysen amendment sometimes substituted amounts specified in what Mr. Rogers has presented, but most often added new funding.

With smaller amendments and adjustments the bill appropriates $50.5 billion in supplemental funding.

Following are specific amounts.  The legislation often includes further detail on how and when the funding must be expended.

HR-152 as originally proposed by Mr. Rogers, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee:

Department of Agriculture,Emergency Food Assistance: $6 million.

Army Corps of Engineers Investigations: $20 million

Army Corps of Engineers Construction: $9 million

Army Corps of Engineers Dredging and Repair: $742 million

Army Corps of Engineers Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies:  $582 million

Small Business Administration salaries and expenses: $10 million

SBA Office of the Inspector General: $1 million

SBA Disaster Loans: $100 million

SBA Administrative and Servicing Costs: $50 million

Coast Guard Acquisition, Construction, and Improvement:  $143, 899,000

FEMA Disaster Relief Fund: $5.379 billion

DHS Science and Technology $585,000

DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Systems Acquisition: $3,869,000

Fish and Wildlife Service: $49, 875, 000

National Park Service: $234 million

Department of Interior, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement: $3 million

Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund: $100 million

Social Security Administration Administrative Expenses: $2 million

DOD, Army National Guard, Military Construction: $24,235,000

Department of Veterans Affairs, Medical Services $21 million

Veterans Medical Facilities: $6 million

National Cemetery Administration $1.1 million

DVA Information Technology Systems $531,000

DVA Construction and Major Projects: $207 million

DOT, FFA Facilities and Equipment: $14,600,000

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK): $32 million

Federal Transit Administration Transportation Emergency Relief Program: $5.4 billion

HUD Community Development Fund: $3.85 billion

Frelinghausen Amendment’s Additional Funding

Several other amendments were offered, usually aimed at reducing a proposed appropriation or seeking cuts in other federal appropriations equal to the new appropriations.   But as far as I can tell — remember I’m only a blogger — the following is accurate as to what was finally appropriated.

Agriculture Department, Emergency Conservation Program: $218 million

Department of Commerce, NOAA: $290 million ($150 million of this was not approved via an amendment to this amendment) mostly on related to debris mapping, improved weather forecasting, and related research.

NOAA Construction and Repairs: $186 million

FBI salaries and expenses: $10,020,000

DEA salaries and expenses: $1 million

ATFE salaries and expenses $230, 000

Federal Prison System: $10 million

NASA Repairs: $15 million

Legal Services Corporation: $1 million

DOD Army Operations and Maintenance: $5,370,000

DOD Navy Operations and Maintenance: $40,015,000

DOD Air Force Operations and Maintenance: $8.5 million

Army National Guard Operations and Maintenance: $3,165,000

Air National Guard Operations and Maintenance: $5,775,000

Army Ammunition Procurement: $1,310,000

Defense Working Capital Fund $24,200,000

Army Corps of Engineers Investigations: $50 million

Army Corps of Engineers Construction: $3.461 billion

Army Corps of Engineers Operation and Maintenance (mostly dredging): $821 million

Army Corps of Engineers Flood Control and Coast Emergencies (mostly repairs): $1,008,000,000

Army Corps of Engineers Expenses: $10 million

General Services Administration (owner/operator of federal facilities): $7 million

SBA, added $10 million to original amount for salaries and expenses.

SBA Inspector General, added $5 million to original amount.

SBA Disaster Loan Program Account: $520 million

DHS Customs and Border Control Salaries and Expenses: $1,667,000

DHS, ICE Salaries and Expenses: $855,000

DHS, US Secret Service Salaries and Expenses: $300,000

Coast Guard Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements, substituted $274,233,000 for original $143, 899,000

FEMA Disaster Relief Fund plus up of $11, 487,735,000.

DHS S&T: Replaced $585,000 with $3,249,000

Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Replaced $49,875,000 with $78 million.

National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund: $50 million

National Park Service Construction: $348 million instead of $234 million.

Department of Interior Operations: $360 million

EPA programs and management $725,000

Hazardous Substance Superfund: $2 million

Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund: $5 million

EPA State and Tribal Assistance Grants: $600 million

Forest Service Capital Improvement and Maintenance: $4.4 million

Smithsonian Institution Salaries and Expenses: $2 million

Department of Labor Training and Employment Services: $25 million

HHS Public Health and Social Services  Emergency Fund: $800 million

DOT, FFA Facilities and Equipment: $30 million

Federal Highway Administration, Emergency Relief Program: $2.011 billion

AMTRAK: $86 million

Federal Transit Administration , Emergency Relief Program: $10.9 billion

HUD, Community Development Fund: $16 billion

As Senator Dirksen is regularly quoted as saying, “A billion here a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

The House approved the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, H.R. 152, in a 241-180 vote. Among Republicans, 179 voted against it, and just 49 voted for it.  According to The Hill, the nay votes “were a protest against a bill that many conservatives say is too big and provides funding for things other than immediate relief for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.”

December 6, 2012

Senator Coburn gives a second warning to homeland security

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,State and Local HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on December 6, 2012

Senator Tom Coburn fired another warning shot over the bow of the USS Homeland Security Enterprise.

On December 4th, the man likely to become ranking minority member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in US Cities.” The 54 page report — well worth reading — “exposes misguided and wasteful spending” in the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant programs.

As if to emphasize “misguided and wasteful,” the cover features a toy truck, a toy 4 wheeler, a toy police helicopter, and a small R2D2 robot.

Coburn uasi report

The toys are immediately outside the US Capitol building. I’m not sure what that image is supposed to symbolize. It could mean somebody’s been playing around with Congress. Or maybe it is supposed to be a metaphor for the way Congress treats homeland security.

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The UASI report is the senator’s second recent warning to the homeland security enterprise.

Last October, he released “Federal Support For And Involvement In State And Local Fusion Centers.” That report questioned federal funding for fusion centers and concluded, among other things, that fusion centers do not contribute much to federal counterterrorism effectiveness, and DHS does not know how much it spent on fusion center support. (Spending estimates ranged — if “ranged” is the correct word here — from $289 million to $1.4 billion.)

The Fusion Center report hit a nerve. Within a week of its release, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriffs Association, Major Cities Chiefs, Major County Sheriffs, National Governors Association Homeland Security Advisers Counsel, National Narcotics Officers Coalition Association, National Fusion Center Association, and the Association Of State Criminal Investigative Agencies issued a “joint statement” disagreeing with the report. (Eight public safety associations agreeing on anything in less than a week must be a world record.)

Their statement said, in part, “Simply put, the report displays a fundamental disconnect and severe misunderstanding of the federal government’s role in supporting state and locally owned and operated fusion centers and the critical role that fusion centers play in the national counterterrorism effort.”

Media attention to the Fusion Center report lasted about a week. I wonder how long interest in the UASI report will last.

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The UASI report has lots of material to provoke media outrage.

Some of the stories of questionable UASI expenditures are old news – for example the one about 13 sno-cone machines (p. 31). Other “questionable projects” were new – at least to me.

One city produced a series of videos titled “A Tale of Disaster and Preparedness.” The UASI report complains the “little more than common sense suggestions” in the video are “presented as a steady stream of jokes….” (p. 32).

I thought the preparedness videos were innocently compelling – sort of like Apple versus PC commercials. But as Will Rogers might have said, one person’s joke is another person’s misused taxpayer funds.

There was a somewhat too long description of a $1000, UASI allowable expense, entrance fee for a five day counterterrorism summit held on an island near San Diego. The Summit featured “40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit.” (p. 25)

The report even found some UASI money was apparently spent on “a true pork project – a hog catcher in Liberty County [Texas],” used (according to another source) to aid in catching and controlling unruly swine at holding sites. (p. 24)

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There are many other examples of UASI spending for things and activities that at a minimum activate a reader’s WTF response. But beyond the sometimes surreal stories, the report – addressed to “Dear Taxpayer” – is a serious critique of the $7 billion spent on the UASI programs over the past decade.

Part 2 of the report: “The Politics of Risk” discusses the role of political influence in determining how homeland security money is allocated.

Tom Ridge is quoted as saying he was looking for a grant formula that gets “218 votes in the House or 51 votes Senate….”  Anyone still operating under the assumption that grant awards are – or ever were – based on objective measures of threat or vulnerability or consequence can benefit from spending time with Part 2.

Part 3 asks whether UASI grants have made the nation safer.

This chapter is the latest cover of the “Nobody Knows Whether Homeland Security Spending Is A Worthwhile Investment” song. The report (later) even brings up the Mueller and Stewart critique about acceptable and unacceptable risk. I thought their analysis was anathema in DHS and in Congress. Maybe not everywhere.

Part 3 also describes how homeland security money expands the militarization of state and local law enforcement, including the use of drones and “Long-Range Acoustic Devices” (i.e., sound cannons) in urban areas.

Part 4 was a bit disappointing. It offered a recycled critique that FEMA ineffectively manages grant programs, and shows a surprisingly naïve understanding of how measuring homeland security preparedness is different from measuring risk in the finance and insurance industries. The report avoids trying to explain the causes of this “mismanagement;” saying instead, “It is unclear why FEMA continues to have difficulties in [measuring the effectiveness of its grant programs] considering the experience and expertise of the private sector that is available to inform FEMA’s own efforts.”

How about “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted?”

I thought the report all but gave up in Part 5: “Conclusions and Recommendations.” I did not see anything new here in the slightly more than one page final section.

DHS needs to address A, B, C…
DHS needs to demand Q, R & S from local and state partners…
DHS needs to implement a systematic approach to X, Y & Z…

Yes, DHS ought to do all those things.

But what is that old saying about insanity? About doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results? Those recommendations are not new insights.

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The UASI report missed an opportunity to break new ground in the decade long search for ways to bring more rigor, order, rationality, and common sense to the homeland security grant process.

On page 5, one finds this nugget of realpolitik:

“Any blame for problems in the UASI program, however, also falls on Congress, which is often more preoccupied with the amount of money sent to its cities than with how the money is spent, or whether it was ever needed in the first place. With so few accountability measures in place, there is almost no way to ensure taxpayers are getting value for their money, and more importantly, whether they are safer.”

The report blames the members of Congress for being more interested in sending money to constituents than figuring out the usefulness of those expenditures.

So what does the report recommend Congress should do to fix this primal cause of the UASI allocation problem?

The only recommendation I could find was in the last sentence of the report: Congress needs to … “demand answers.”

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Lorelei Kelly describes in another document  called  “Congress’ Wicked Problems,” — also released on December 4th – how and why Congress has become incapacitated, despised and obsolete.   She argues in its present state, Congress “cannot serve the needs of American democracy in the 21st Century.”

Kelly’s essay is especially worth reading in conjunction with the UASI report.

Someone who is sick probably can’t get better by demanding that other people get healthy.

Maybe the next step Congress could take to remedy the significant issues raised in the UASI report is to heal itself first.

I wonder if that healing will be on the agenda of the new ranking minority member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

July 25, 2012

Ungrateful, Unfeeling or Just Numb

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 25, 2012

When Vice President Joe Biden addressed a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia this afternoon, he probably expected the blue-collar throng to be a friendly crowd. After all, firefighters have few friends in Washington, DC more loyal or admiring than he’s been. Few politicians appreciate the influence wielded by firefighters better than Mr. Biden, who once referred to them as Delaware’s third major political party.

As you might expect, the Vice President set a complimentary tone in his remarks, assuring firefighters that he and the President see them as the key to protecting America’s middle class. It was unclear whether he meant this literally or metaphorically. Perhaps it was both.

For the most part, the Vice President’s remarks suggested he was aiming to evoke the sort of mutual adulation that firefighters and politicians routinely share with one another in public. GIven the political season, Mr. Biden did not shy away from taking shots at the other side by suggesting the Obama Administration supports firefighters and their brothers and sisters in blue, the police, but those other guys, represented by Mr. Romney, do not.

Not long after he finished speaking, the reviews were in. Most firefighters were glad to see the second-highest ranking elected Democrat reaching out to the party’s traditional base at a union convention. But some expected more.

One of those who was not exactly thrilled with Mr. Biden’s remarks was the president of the Philadelphia local of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who expressed dismay bordering on disgust because the Vice President had not explicitly cited and endorsed the union’s victory in an arbitration case that awarded Pennsylvania firefighters protection against furloughs and a pay raise. City officials in Philadelphia, like those in Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which recently implemented unilateral cuts to all city workers’ pay in a desperate bid to avoid bankruptcy, are appealing that decision.

These are tough times for cities. And that’s because times have been tough for city-dwellers. Not only have many Americans seen the value of their homes plummet, but many have seen real wages shrink even as their workplace tenure has become more tenuous.

Firefighters face few of these problems. For the most part, their pay has been stable or increasing since the recession started . Their benefits remain far more generous than those available to comparably trained workers in similar occupations. (I know, firefighters think no one has a job like theirs. They are right about that, many far riskier jobs provide far less secure employment and much poorer pay and benefits. Take fishing for instance. Or driving a taxi.) And until recently, they could be reasonably confident that they would continue being employed.

Now that the recession has lingered far longer than anyone expected, many firefighters are finding themselves in much the same position as those they protect. And that doesn’t sit well with a group that sees themselves as different, even special.

Firefighters have a difficult time relating to the plight of cities. Perhaps this is because so few of them live there. In most urban communities the days when fire departments were composed of neighbors stepping up to help one another is long gone. Today, the fire department is just another municipal service we pay others to provide.

Mr. Biden suggested that firefighters are the very soul of their communities. I am sure he meant to imply this was true of the communities where firefighters work, not the ones where they live, since these are rarely the same place anymore. I’m not sure he didn’t get this the wrong way around though.

Like Mr. Biden, though, I still admire firefighters. After all, it’s hard not to like anyone who enjoys his or her job as much as firefighters do, especially when they take so much pride in doing it well. But this does not make firefighters special. Neither do the risks they take. Although firefighting has its dangers, firefighters succumb to these far less often than one might imagine. The same things that kill other workers in far less dangerous occupations claim firefighters lives too, and take many more of them than fires do.

What makes firefighters special in my book is the peculiar compassion they show for others in their times of greatest need. Mr. Biden recognized this when he spoke of the selfless actions of responders to the Aurora theater massacre. Sure, these men and women faced perils in responding to an active shooter call. But the actions they took caring for the wounded was not simply about confronting risks or the skillful performance of well-practiced routines. It was also about the concern they showed not just for the physical wellbeing of those involved, but for their emotional and psychological welfare as well.

You can’t really train people to do this. They either feel empathy or they do not. The fact most of them do feel empathy means that the mere act of showing up when needed is the point at which they add the most value.

This value can easily get lost in debates about what the work people do is really worth. It can also get lost in the heat of a political fight for the heart and soul of a great nation whose public servants like her people have started to become just a little too numb to the pain most of us share.

 

July 11, 2012

Fiscal Cliff and Slippery Slope

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 11, 2012

In Washington, D.C., a great deal of discussion surrounds competing conceptions of the fiscal cliff and what, if anything, the government should do to avoid going over it. As I have mentioned repeatedly in recent weeks, many cities around the nation find themselves on a slippery slope toward bankruptcy (or its equivalent) as they confront the lingering effects of the economic crisis and past political decisions by their elected officials.

This week another two California cities sought bankruptcy protection. San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes join the likes of Stockton and Vallejo.

Such dire fiscal situations are  not limited to California. Public employees in Scranton, Pennsylvania received unwelcome news with their pay packets this week when city leaders kept their promise to unilaterally cut pay to the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour in a desperate bid to meet payroll. This confrontation with public employees unions and among elected officials at city hall follows an arbitrator’s ruling that awarded public safety employees significant compensation increases.

As I read news of these developments, I wondered why these experiences do not seem more salient to others and what, if any, effect they have on the debate in Washington, D.C.

Evidence that they are beginning to influence the policy debate beyond the Beltway is abundant. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quoted recently as pleading with Capitol Hill to stop sending him federal assistance to pay employees he cannot afford to retain and will have to layoff. At the same time, others around the country are clambering for still more aid in any form they can get it.

Grants to help communities hire law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs have existed for a long time, in many different forms. They did not suddenly appear with the fiscal crisis. But what did change was the requirement for local communities to come up with plans to match a portion of the aid they received by sustaining these positions over time. Likewise, grant applications that help jurisdictions avoid layoffs receive priority consideration in making awards without regard for circumstances contributing to these sitiations.

In many instances, this approach creates the same kind of moral hazard that the European Union’s effort to help Greece avoid default. Bailing out a government that made bad decisions and citizens who stand complicit (or in most cases simply sat by and watched) does nothing to correct the situation or prevent it from occurring again. Moreover, it may present an incentive to continue making the sort of bad decisions that led to the crisis in the first place.

Normally, I find little to agree with Gov. Christie and his party about. But from where I sit, he’s right to question whether the federal government is doing anything particularly helpful by sending grant monies to local and state governments for police officers and firefighters they cannot afford.

Interestingly enough, I have seen at least one proposal floated recently to expand AmeriCorps to serve rural communities’ public safety needs. Some local officials rebelled against this notion suggesting without irony that it amounted to little more than socialism in the form of a federal takeover of local service delivery. This criticism, however, ignores the fact that many communities simply cannot attract or retain enough volunteers to meet their own needs even if they can afford to train and equip them. I know many of these same officials would hold their noses and accept money, not people, if they were offered it even though they oppose the taxes used to collect and disburse it.

I am intrigued by the suggestion of an AmericCorps expansion. It appeals to me on several levels. First, it encourages national service without requiring it. Second, it rewards community service by offering educational assistance to young people who commit to a period of national service in an underserved community besides their own. Third, it transforms what might otherwise be a deadweight economic loss into a positive externality by providing kids who are finding themselves priced out of the market for education with an opportunity to earn the money required to earn their degrees. It also manages to do this without forcing kids to compromise by dividing their time and attention between the two tasks — working and studying — at once. By reducing the future debt burden on these young people, it also reduces economic uncertainty and accompanying long-term risk associated with burgeoning student debt.

The idea of offering students education or housing incentives to volunteer as firefighters has long proven successful. It has also proven antithetical to the labor movement who see students stealing living wage jobs from people who neither need nor desire a college education. I might find it easier to accept this argument if I thought communities could afford to hire firefighters on the same terms as current employees but simply chose not to. IT might also be easier to swallow if firefighters in so many communities were not overcompensated for their labor compared to similarly skilled workers, including those engaged in risky occupations.

Many, if not most, other countries employ a two-tiered hiring system for firefighters. In some cases, the entry level positions are held by a combination of working class recuits and conscripts, much like our own military has operated in times past. The officer corps, on the other hand, tends to be stocked with managerial and technical professionals recruited from post-secondary educational institutions, which is most certainly not true of our own local fire service leadership. Many foreign fire service officers possess professional qualifications in engineering or scientific disciplines, which is rarely true here.

If every jurisdiction that enters bankruptcy exits in a fashion similar to Vallejo, such a course of action may not end up being such a bad thing. Somehow, though, I doubt this will be the case. Recent grand jury findings concerning the Orange County Fire Authority’s employee compensation arrangements and operational inefficiencies delivering emergency medical services suggest that particular community did not learn such lessons from their dance-with-economic-death in mid-1990s. (To be fair, their fiscal disaster arose from different circumstances entirely. Nevertheless, they formed the fire authority for the ostensible purpose of avoiding unsustainable fiscal circumstances that already affected many municipalities that depended upon the county for support if not service.)

If federal officials really want to help local communities, creating a win-win like the suggested AmeriCorps expansion just might work. But for that to be the case, local and state officials of both left and right political persuasions will have to lose their fear of their own public employees, abandon ideological posturing about for purely political purposes, and lose their learned  indifference to accepting help that comes with strings attached. Here’s hoping more wake-up before hitting bottom.

June 27, 2012

Coming Soon to a City Near You

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 27, 2012

If all went as expected last night, Stockton, California is now on its way to becoming the latest and largest American city to seek bankruptcy protection. This news comes a little more than a week after North Las Vegas, Nevada declared a state of emergency in a desperate (and some say illegal) attempt to mitigate financial catastrophe by forcing concessions from its unions. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are preparing to layoff firefighters and police officers, including Detroit, which expects to cut 164 fire department positions in the very near future.

To those cops, firefighters and public safety administrators to whom these headlines do not seem all that shocking, they certainly are depressing. I am not, however, among those in either camp. I know that this too shall pass. The sooner we get started, the sooner things will get better.

Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy. Today, citizens and elected officials alike have renewed pride in their community by investing in new ways of doing business and restoring a shared sense of commitment to one another’s welfare and their city’s future. This vision is grounded in the understanding that the obligations of citizenship extend well beyond paying taxes or voting in elections.

My uncle is among the Vallejo residents who pitched-in, spoke up and helped reinvent this solidly blue-collar community. We’ve spoken at length about his experiences, which have also informed his critically-acclaimed novels and short stories.

Like many of his neighbors, my uncle took up residence in Vallejo over fifteen years ago when the cost of housing drove him out of San Francisco where he worked and Berkeley where he lived. Vallejo was affordable and accessible if not upwardly mobile or particularly happening and hip.

The U.S. Navy’s closure of the Mare Island Shipyard a few years earlier meant the city had already seen its salad days. That said, jobs paying a reasonable wage could be found relatively easily. Median salaries covered the mortgage for modest homes that afforded residents a toehold on a middle-class lifestyle.

As home values began appreciating with the loosening of lending practices, city revenues shot up. People were no wealthier than before. Salaries had not increased all that much, but the ability to live beyond one’s means had.

Mandatory collective bargaining and binding-interest arbitration with public safety employees meant civil servants saw regular and healthy pay increases as city coffers remained full. The year before Vallejo entered bankruptcy, the median firefighter salary and wages (with overtime) exceeded $157,000 and the contract awarded employees a nine percent pay increase. (Most cops were doing even better.) Great work if you can get it, eh? But a hard nut to cover if your citizens’ median household income is around $59,000.

In the years since, housing prices and middle-class incomes from employment in the private sector have both collapsed. Unequipped to respond flexibly like their private sector counterparts, public employers trimmed positions and services until they had no easy choices left.

I am neither anti-employee nor anti-union. But I would like to think I am pro-common sense. And my sense of the situation is that too many cities and their public safety employees are on the same slippery slope Vallejo was. If so, this week’s headlines suggest many are now losing their footing.

The problems confronting public safety agencies and their employee unions is simple: Structural deficits are inevitable when contracts award employees wage and benefit packages whose costs exceed the rate of increase in revenues, often by a rate of three, four or five-to-one. The precipitous decline in property values has only exacerbated and sometimes accelerated the inevitable conflict between what was promised and what is possible.

When public entities enter bankruptcy, employees become creditors. The citizen-owners’ ability to pay determines what creditors will get. And citizens’ willingness to do for themselves determines their future — that of the community as a whole and the employees who once assumed the community depended upon their intervention alone.

Communities across the country are rediscovering their ability to do for themselves what they reckon they cannot do without. What most communities discover after entering the bankruptcy process is that they were not nearly as dependent on firefighters or cops as they once thought.

Even in those few instances where time really makes a critical difference to the ultimate outcome, sudden cardiac arrest for instance, communities like San Jose, California are finding ways to mobilize citizens as first responders. CPR-trained citizens can (and do) download a smartphone app that notifies them when a cardiac arrest call is received near them. The app not only alerts them to respond, but also advises the location of the nearest publicly accessible automatic external defibrillator.

The efficacy of this approach is already clear. In a few short months since its release, several citizen “saves” have been documented. Statistical evidence of effectiveness will come in time.

We may not want to encourage people to use this sort of technology to enable them to fight fires or enter dangerous environments to perform rescues without training or protective equipment, but we can take advantage of their proximity and access to technology to inform how public agencies respond.  By doing so, we can clearly achieve improved efficiencies even if we do little to increase effectiveness.

Communities across the country face hard choices. Stockton, Detroit and North Las Vegas share little in common besides their parlous fiscal circumstances. If they are lucky, their citizens will find it increasingly acceptable to reduce their expectations of public servants and increase their expectations of one another.

If public servants want to avoid the inevitable outcome of such a reckoning, their choice is just as clear: Forget about maintaining the status quo and find ways to engage communities, increase efficiency and reduce costs by leveraging not just levying citizens. As more communities confront the harsh realities of their unsustainable fiscal practices and union contracts, it will become clearer to all that communities exist for their own welfare, not that of public employees.

June 10, 2012

Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 10, 2012

Last week, Republicans hounded President Obama unmercifully for a statement he made during a Friday press conference that suggested, “the private sector is doing fine.” The administration’s efforts to recast these remarks in the context of overall employment growth and economic performance since the start of the recession did little good.

Not long after the President made his remarks, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, rushed to add his two cents’: “[President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

To be sure, President Obama does have some pretty solid statistics on his side. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more occupations and most private sector industries have seen sharp drops in employment losses over the past year if not some pretty good gains. And the economy is growing at a rate of about two percent per annum. The same cannot be said for public employment, where job cuts in health and social services, education and general government services continue to climb. Were it not for this drag, economic growth might well be a full percentage point higher.

Romney’s reference to last week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin was intended to reignite enthusiasm among the base for a rejection of government as the solution to America’s economic woes. What he didn’t mention though was the votes in California that approved pension benefit cuts for public employees in San Jose and San Diego. The notion that those who receive a public paycheck are getting a pretty good deal is not limited to a few disgruntled rust-belt states, and seems to be focused not so much on how many are employed or even what they do but on how well they are being treated compared to the rest of us.

Both men chose incorrectly to emphasize the impacts of recent job data and elections, for better or worse, on cops and firefighters. Interestingly enough, the data suggests these occupations are indeed doing just fine. But the data show just as convincingly that what can be said for public protective services cannot be said of other segments of the public sector vital to our security and prosperity.

When politicians speak of police officers and firefighters, they almost invariably seek to invoke strong emotions, some good and some bad. Those who feel secure, see cops and firefighters as guardians or warriors standing up for the common good, patriotic exemplars of loyalty and dedication to American values. Those who feel less secure, often fear the consequences of losing the protective influence of these public servants or the opportunities to join the middle-class these solidly blue-collar occupations offer many of the less-skilled in our society.

Interestingly enough, teachers, although capable of evoking similarly strong emotions, strike a different chord with the public. Teaching is clearly a profession not an occupation. It requires education and experience to do well. The best teachers inspire as well as inform. The worst take more interest in their status and their subjects than their students’ success.

Although all public sector unions have aligned themselves historically and financially with the political left, those who work for government in the health, education and social service sectors have aligned themselves philosophically with this end of the political spectrum as well. They believe government can and should be a powerful force for good in our society.

Firefighters and cops are not so certain about this. Their rhetoric, individually if not collectively, is often, if not always, far more consistent with the philosophies espoused by the right: Government should stick to its core functions and let markets and individuals sort out and deal with the rest. In many ways, this is little more than a convenient, simple and very straightforward way of saying they want their slice of the government pie first.

Other state and municipal occupations, like city planners, building inspectors, social workers, public health practitioners, traffic engineers, parks and recreation employees, and utility and sanitation workers, require extensive technical or professional education or oversight. And their roles are often overlooked when it comes to considering the impacts of a failing economy on our security and prosperity. (If not for roads, water, sewers and other services, what business would survive?)

Until very recently, it was not at all unusual to see fire and police chiefs rise through the ranks with little or no formal education. These days, more cops come to the job with education than firefighters, but education, and the critical thinking and curiosity it implies, has little to do with individual advancement in either occupation at the lower levels of most organizations.

The story of public sector job losses is striking and stands in stark contrast to the tale told by private sector employment statistics: Public sector jobs that require professional and technical education or experience are under-valued and unemployment in these fields leaves incumbents with few private sector opportunities of comparable worth. Private sector job losses have been largely, although by no means exclusively, concentrated among those with less education or experience. And the cuts to government employment rolls in the health, education and social sectors leave them with fewer opportunities to acquire or advance the ability to compete for future jobs.

Although it pains me to say so, Romney’s partly right: We don’t need more cops and firefighters. Mr. President, it would do you well to acknowledge this, and demonstrate that your administration’s commitment to a secure and sustainable recovery starts with looking after those who need our help most.

- + – + – + -

An interesting postscript: Shortly after posting this, I read a summary of Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remarks on CBS’ Sunday program Face the Nation. In short, Walker disagreed with Romney’s interpretation of the recall results. He suggested his “reforms” were aimed at protecting core public safety programs like police and fire protection. And it’s true that Walker’s legislation repealing collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers exempted police and fire unions. (Not so in other states, like Indiana, that followed his example.) Is this another example of a politician pandering to public safety unions, or is it genuine reform?

June 8, 2012

House action on DHS appropriations

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012

Yesterday, June 7, the House approved the fiscal year 2013 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill by a vote of 234-182.  The White House has threatened a veto unless key changes are made in conference with the Senate.

Lots of important details in the bill and related report.  Following, without comment, is a long excerpt from  pages 115-116 of the Committee Report dealing with FEMA programs.

MISSION

State and Local Programs help build and sustain the preparedness and response capabilities of the first responder community. These programs include support for various grant programs andtraining programs.

RECOMMENDATION

The Committee recommends $1,762,589,000 for State and Local Programs, $1,137,623,000 below the amount requested and $412,908,000 above the amount provided in fiscal year 2012.

As part of the budget request, the Administration proposed including the Firefighter Assistance Grants and Emergency Management Performance Grants under this program. The Committee again denies this proposal and recommends funding for both of these grant programs as separate appropriations, consistent with prior years.

In fiscal year 2013, FEMA proposed a new grant program called the National Preparedness Grant Program under State and Local Programs. This proposal is denied due to the lack of Congressional authorization and the lack of the necessary details that are required for the initiation of a new program to include grant guidance and implementation plans.

The Department should work with the appropriate committees of jurisdiction to obtain the necessary authorizing legislation and to clearly define the Federal role and reassess the most effective delivery of support and resources to sustain and improve homeland security capabilities prior to submittinga budget request for such a program. Additionally, the Committee met with and heard testimony from numerous stakeholders that expressed concern not just with the grant proposal but also with the lack of stakeholder outreach prior to the program’s introduction. The Committee considers this lack of outreach concerning and it should be addressed.

Due to these concerns, the Committee continues the grant structure as enacted in fiscal year 2012. The funds provided for State and Local Program grants are to be allocated by the Secretary of Homeland Security according to threat, vulnerability, and consequenceto assist high-risk urban areas, States, local and Tribal governments, and other homeland security partners in preventing, preparing for, protecting against, and responding to acts of terrorism.

May 29, 2012

“… it is not fish they are after.”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Business of HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on May 29, 2012

“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” — John Buchan

Homeland Security Research Corp. (HSRC) describes itself as “a Washington, DC-based international market research and strategic consulting firm serving the homeland security community.”

Two years ago, it projected that

Over the next four years: the U.S. HLS-HLD (i.e. federal, state and local governments, and the private sector) funding will grow from $184 billion in 2011 to $205 billion by 2014. The market will grow from $73 billion in 2011 to $86 billion by 2014.

In another 2010 report– about the private sector’s role in homeland security — HSRC notes:

The private sector procurement of homeland security related products and services represents 15-16% of the total US Homeland Security market. The US private sector HLS market is larger than the combined federal aviation, maritime and land transportation HLS markets. Over the next five years, the US private sector HLS market is forecasted to grow … from $7.7 billion in 2010 to $11.2 billion by 2014.

(To digress, this report contributed to my personal collection of favorite homeland security facts by pointing out The US private sector controls 86% of the nation high-priority infrastructure sites.” The usual estimates typically cite an 85% figure. Since the 85% number has no basis in anything beyond rhetoric, I admire the attention to precision suggested by 86%.  I also respect the creative addition of “high priority” to the otherwise mundane term, “critical infrastructure.”)

A third HSRC 2010 report points out that DHS is just part of the homeland security enterprise:

While the DHS plays a key role in homeland security, it does not dominate the US counter terror … market. The combined state and local markets, which employ more than 2.2 million first responders, totaled $15.8 billion (2009), whereas the DHS HLS market totaled $13.1 billion. …In spite of the fact that nine years passed since 9/11 with no successful terror attack on the continental USA, periodic, multi-year Harris polls, reveal consistent growth of public concern about another major terrorist attack.

That concern suggests opportunity:

Future small scale terror attacks (successful or not) will maintain this trend in the future. [sic] For example, the failed 2009 Christmas attack aboard a flight bound for Detroit and the attempted car-bombing in New York’s Time Square (February 2010) resulted in immediate White House intervention, Congressional hearings and a radical air passengers screening upgrade program costing over $1.6 billion.

But even if the federal budget does not come through, there’s still state and local government.

Most analysts overlook the fact that the OMB federal rules demand that state and local HLS activities must be financed at the state, county and city level. Annually, all the states and over 40,000 counties and cities fund $53-$62 billion of their HLS activities, while the federal government supplements this spending with grants valued at $3-5 billion annually.

———

“Fishing is a delusion entirely surrounded by liars in old clothes.” — Don Marquis

A recent two-day Counter Terror Expo was sparsely attended, writes Andrea Stone in Huffington Post.

“This is probably one of the worst I’ve been to in years,” said Jason Henry of Field Forensics, a Florida manufacturer of explosives and hazardous-material-detection devices that was incorporated in September 2001. “Nobody’s walking the show.”

“It was not as well attended as we expected,” said Mark Anderson, a representative of FLIR, which manufactures sophisticated thermal imaging equipment for police and the military and was an event cosponsor. …

“Unless a war pops up somewhere else, the homeland security mission will become much more important [compared with a declining DoD mission],” said John Gritschke, a manager for Laser Shot, a Texas-based maker of training videos.

… Despite the low attendance at the expo, most exhibitors said business was good.

That bothered Benjamin Friedman, a Cato Institute analyst.

“Our panicked response to 9/11 has made a kind of self-licking ice cream that tries to keep us worrying about terrorism and sells us defenses against it,” Friedman stated …. “This conference is a small part of that.”

“The good news is that austerity has meant that there is less money for homeland security, shrinking the homeland security industrial complex and bringing it into increased competition with its far bigger cousin, the military industrial complex,” Friedman added.

But one can always count on human nature’s self destructiveness.

Whether it’s war fighters or cops, Patricia Schmaltz of Virginia-based A-T Solutions sees a vibrant market for her company’s antiterrorism training classes. “I don’t see peace on Earth coming anytime soon,” she said.

“We would definitely support it but we don’t see it,” Schmaltz said. “So long as there are bad guys and nutcakes out there, we’ll be in business.”

———

Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated story, Rebecca Shlien reports the third annual Homeland Security Bass Tournament took place on Friday, May 18th in Decatur, Alabama.

… [Roughly] 300 current and retired firefighters, police officers, first responders and military troops came to cast a line—and not only from North Alabama.

[The tournament's founder said] “I know we’ve got one [participant] here from Iowa, we’ve got Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida, so we draw them from quite a ways…. The jobs that these guys have, there’s a lot of tense, a lot of stress involved, and to get out there on the water and go fast in a bass boat, spend a few hours catching some fish, it really helps you unwind.”

If you’re interested, you can watch a video about last year’s Homeland Security Bass Tournament here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtxiA43BrnY

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” — Henry David Thoreau

April 12, 2012

Government of the People: It can be complicated

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on April 12, 2012

Last week FEMA released it’s Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) Guide.  This is a key element in implementation of PPD-8, the achievement of the National Preparedness Goal, and for justifying grant requests under the newly consolidated DHS grant program.

As otherwise explained by FEMA administrators, the THIRA includes a five step process for identifying top priorities:

  • Identify the threats and hazards of concernWhat could happen in my community?
  • Give the threats and hazards contextDescribe how a threat or hazard could happen in my community, and when and where it could happen.
  • Examine the core capabilities using the threats and hazardsHow would each threat or hazard affect the core capabilities identified in the National Preparedness Goal?
  • Set capability targetsUsing the information above, set the level of capability a community needs to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from its risks.
  • Apply the resultsUse the capability targets to decide how to use resources from the Whole Community.

This is a gross simplification, but a jurisdiction — or much better, collaborative jurisdictions — can use the THIRA to identify threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences.  Then using the 31 core capabilities in the National Preparedness Goal, the jurisdictions can think through what they need, what they have, and any capability gaps they want to fill.  Then they make their case for federal funding to preserve current capabilities or fill current gaps.  Presumably they will also decide where to focus priorities with or without federal funding.

Pretty reasonable all-in-all.  But if you are anywhere around this process you already know many are not happy (to be understated).

Unhappiness was probably guaranteed.  There’s a lot less money to distribute.

The Department and OMB amplified the unhappiness by eliminating most of the the individual grant programs (buckets, rice bowls, etc.).  Ever read,  Who Moved My Cheese?

I perceive — on absolutely no authority — that someone decided if the states and locals are going to scream and shout anyway, let’s go ahead and rationalize the process.  Instead of DHS dividing up the cheese, let’s devolve this process to the states so that key strategic decisions are made holistically by those closest to the vulnerabilities, threats, and options.

No one asked my opinion, but I might well have offered such advice.

Glad no one asked for my advice.

On March 20 there was a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications.  It was an old-fashioned sort of hearing. Authentic questions were asked. Complicated answers were accepted without attack.  Democrats and Republicans were civil to each other and often agreed with each other. They especially agreed that consolidation of DHS grant programs was a bad idea.

The strongest testimony of the day was probably that of Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia, following is an excerpt of his prepared testimony, very close to what he said aloud:

We are very concerned about the increased role which states will play in determining where and how funds would be spent:

With increased authority, the Commonwealth will likely augment the already bureaucratic processes required to purchase equipment. Even now, prior to increased oversight and authority, the Commonwealth has added additional layers to the equipment acquisition process thus limiting the ability of local jurisdictions to spend down their grant funds and obtain much needed equipment

Further, the Commonwealth already has a track record of re-distributing funding away from urban areas and re-allocating that funding to other areas of the Commonwealth. For example, in FY2011, PEMA reallocated the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) funding away from the Philadelphia Urban Area to other Task Forces within the Commonwealth.

The SHSGP distribution is historically based on population index, economic index, and critical infrastructure points. Based on this formula alone, the Philadelphia Urban Area was slated to receive the largest award amount. While we were bracing for a 50 percent cut due to an overall decrease in funding, we actually received an 85.46 percent reduction in the SHSGP grant.

There are nine Task Forces in the Commonwealth. One received a 50 percent SHSGP cut and the others received 25 percent reductions. This demonstrates a disproportionate impact on Philadelphia that does not align with the historical grant allocation guidelines.

Subcommittee members seemed unanimous in their concern and amazement at such behavior by Pennsylvania.  Evidently antipathy to the executive branch — either federal or state — can be especially effective at bringing legislators to common cause.

I was reminded of a meeting last month with public safety leaders in a city overlooking the Pacific.  When someone (not me!) suggested seeking State support for a homeland security measure the immediate response was raucous laughter.  It was the sort of laughter that renewed itself, grew stronger, and actually caused one firefighter to laugh himself into tears, which of course prompted even more laughter.

About three months ago I was in an urban county’s Emergency Management Agency listening to one complaint after another aimed at FEMA.  Perhaps sensing some impatience on my part, the Director said, “Oh, don’t think we’re being too tough on FEMA.  They’re our best friends compared to (insert name of state capital).  We actively hate (insert name of state EMA). FEMA wants us to focus where we don’t want to focus, even though we sometimes should (latter phrase probably inserted only for my benefit).  The state is just pure incompetent.”

The picture at the top shows a 30 foot statue that stands in a plaza between Philadelphia  City Hall and the Municipal Services Building. Conceived  in bronze by Jacques Lipchitz,  it shows several human figures entwined in each other, holding each other, perhaps lifting each other up (or is it holding each other down?). It’s convoluted, even confusing.  The statue is called “Government of the People”.

Who says modern art isn’t allegorical.

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