'Homeland security' becomes buzzword for justifying budget requests

Even before President Bush officially sent Capitol Hill his request for $74.7 billion for the war in Iraq and homeland security on March 25, the nation's mayors said they were being shortchanged. The airlines said they were being deprived. And congressional Democrats accused the president of failing to protect communities across the country.

All of the arguments were made in the name of "homeland security." These days, it seems that anybody seeking federal money throws around that buzzword to try to push pet concerns to the front of the line. House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., has seen the technique firsthand as his panel begins to sift through members' requests for projects in the fiscal 2004 spending bills.

"It is amazing how people can relate anything to 'homeland defense,' " Young said in a recent interview. "I don't think I have received any '04 request that has not been related to 'homeland defense.' "

The lawmakers who are requesting the money see their needs as genuine, and they believe that their effectiveness will be judged on their ability to deliver. But to critics of federal spending, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the situation is nothing short of "war profiteering."

The nation's security needs-and and the government's willingness to meet them-have moved to the forefront again as Congress works on a fiscal 2003 supplemental spending bill to answer Bush's request. More than $62 billion would go toward fighting the war. But while the president sought an additional $4.2 billion to "enhance the safety and well-being of Americans at home and abroad," as the Office of Management and Budget put it, the funding level for homeland security is growing by the day.

In fact, the congressional debate over the supplemental appropriations bill is only the opening round in what is shaping up to be a huge bidding war over homeland security. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees each now have a separate subcommittee on homeland security, and appropriators will be devoting one of their 13 fiscal 2004 funding bills to the issue.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, admits that he's flying by the seat of his pants in trying to judge what to fund. In comparison with two other Appropriations subcommittees that Rogers formerly chaired-Commerce-Justice-State and Transportation-the new panel has a "much larger and undefined" mission, he said in an interview. "There's no pattern for us to follow. We're having to set the rules as we go along."

Rogers said it remains unclear whether his subcommittee will provide general funding for homeland security needs, or if it will instead earmark funds for specific projects-a practice the Bush administration has consistently condemned. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said in an interview that he would try to avoid including earmarked projects in his bill. But Cochran admitted with a smile that he might not succeed.

One thing is clear: The demand for homeland security dollars is great. The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently reported that since 9/11, cities have spent more than $2.6 billion on homeland security. "As a group, we find that we are spending over $21.4 million per week in additional homeland security costs attributable to the war and the increased threat alert," the mayors said in their report. If the war and the current domestic security alert were to continue for six months, cities would spend almost $2 billion more, the mayors said.

"Cities cannot bear these costs alone," they said. "They need an effective and cooperative partnership with Washington on homeland security-and that means financial assistance." The cities are asking for direct aid, rather than funding that is funneled through the states.

According to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Bush's latest request for homeland security won't cover the cities' costs. "The administration's proposal contains insufficient funding, given the tremendous security expenses our cities face during the war and ongoing high-alert threat," said O'Malley, the chairman of the mayors' conference homeland security task force. The mayors said that while Bush proposed providing $150 million, through the states, for overtime pay for emergency first responders, cities are spending that amount in just two weeks.

Congressional Democrats have also taken up the call for more Homeland security money, both in the supplemental spending bill and beyond. Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the House Appropriations Committee's ranking member, said the government should be spending at least $10 billion more on homeland security in the supplemental-not the $4.2 billion Bush requested. "We are seriously at risk, and we're not doing nearly enough," Obey told reporters recently.

Obey identified $10.5 billion in homeland security needs, including $5.5 billion to improve protections for civilians and $1.2 billion to boost security at U.S. military installations. During the House Appropriations Committee's April 1 markup of the supplemental funding bill, he proposed adding just $2.5 billion more than Bush for homeland security, but was defeated on a party-line vote.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., announced on April 1 that the chamber's Democrats would try to boost homeland security funding in the supplemental bill to $9 billion. "States, cities, and towns remain extremely vulnerable to terrorist attack and are ill-equipped to deal with this challenge," Daschle said. "Due to the worst fiscal crisis in decades, state and local budgets are stretched to the breaking point, and police and firefighters are struggling just to maintain peacetime staffing levels." Even if Democrats do not get all the homeland security money they want in the supplemental, they are sure to renew the efforts during the fight over the fiscal 2004 Homeland Security appropriations bill.

In the House, Republicans committed themselves to holding the amount of the supplemental spending bill at close to what the administration had requested. But the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an extra $400 million for homeland security on April 1. And both chambers have tacked on a bailout package of some $3 billion for the airline industry.

"We need to have something in this for aviation," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, an appropriator. She added that airlines have faced greatly expanded security costs in recent months, but warned, "We're not just going to throw money at the airline industry."

The airlines are not the only ones demanding attention. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., pushed for at least $7 billion in the supplemental bill to establish a Domestic Defense Fund that would include $1 billion for high-threat areas such as New York City and Washington, D.C. She said that New York's security plan, "Operation Atlas," will cost $5 million a week. "You cannot win the war on terrorism with a good offense only," added Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "You also need a good defense."

But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told a House Appropriations subcommittee recently that the administration does not want to set aside funding for specific communities. Ridge also argued that the "primary responsibility for public safety" lies "with the state and local governments." He said although the federal government has a role to play in increased security costs, it will not assume a huge responsibility for law-enforcement costs.

Congress, however, was unwilling to give the administration the wide latitude it wants to decide how money in the supplemental bill is spent. Bush had asked for several pots of money and the power to decide how to use them. In response, appropriators issued a reminder that they hold the power of the purse.

"We didn't just create huge slush funds for agencies," Young said during his committee's markup of the supplemental. "We are trying to be supportive of the president, while maintaining our constitutional responsibility." Young earmarked $700 million in the bill to assist "high-threat, high-density" urban areas, with New York and Washington being the two most often mentioned.

Young's action came despite the administration's continuing crusade, led by OMB Director Mitch Daniels, against congressional earmarks. At a March 28 breakfast with reporters, Daniels urged Congress to resist the temptation to set aside money for specific communities. "If there's one area where one would hope for some restraint, it is homeland security," Daniels said. "There's not enough money in the galaxy to protect every inch of America from every threat by every fanatic."

Demands like that from the administration-coupled with lawmakers' demands for more homeland-security money-leave appropriators in the hot seat. Rogers conceded that he is going to have to say no to a great many members over the next few months. "I don't blame the members," Rogers said, "but there's a limit to what we can do." Cochran is likewise feeling the heat. "There are too many pressures across the country for more money for good reasons," he said.

Cochran added that Congress will have to define the federal responsibility, even as cities and states constantly have their hands out for more. "They want as much money from the federal government as they can get," he said. "I don't blame them."

At the same time, conservatives and other critics of congressional spending will be watching closely to see if members indiscriminately try to use the guise of "homeland security" to seek pork barrel projects for their hometowns. "It's called war profiteering," McCain said. "You saw it on the [fiscal 2003] omnibus appropriations bill. It was obscene."

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