House homeland chair seeks to overhaul first responder funding

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., has unveiled the first part of a comprehensive, homeland security reform proposal.

The first piece of his four-part plan focuses on emergency responder funding. Other proposals in the works and planned for later release will address homeland security intelligence reform, smaller-scale changes to Homeland Security Department activities and technical corrections.

This bill is the first major legislation developed by the committee, established at the beginning of this year to rationalize homeland security policy on Capitol Hill. Cox's bill represents an effort to draw the lines around the jurisdiction of the new committee at a time when other members are questioning whether it will become permanent next year.

Describing the bill as amending the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the department, Cox said in an interview, "This is squarely within our jurisdiction."

The emergency response piece, called the "Faster and Smarter Funding For First Responders Act," would establish a new grant system for homeland security activities.

That money would be dispersed based solely on the terrorist threat level faced by the locality.

Grant applications initially would be ranked by the Homeland Security Department's information analysis wing, instead of its state and local office.

"We want to make sure first responders get the funding they need, when they need it, and we want to establish a grant-making system that meets homeland security objectives rather than political objectives," Cox said.

Cox's bill also would preserve all the pre-9/11 grant programs for the group now known as "first responders," such as the popular community policing program, COPS.

"We still have forest fires. We still have burning buildings. We still have floods and earthquakes. And we still have murders and rapists," Cox said. "We don't want first responders to be taffy-pulled between their homeland security responsibility and their original missions."

The second component, the "Homeland Security Enhancement Act of 2003," will address the department's intelligence capacity, which has come under fire at a number of the committee's hearings.

Although beefing up intelligence gathering is still under discussion, Cox said the proposal's focus will be "providing the necessary resources and underlining the existing statutory responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security as the fusion center of homeland security intelligence."

The third part, the "Homeland Security Implementation Act of 2003," Cox said, will offer more than a dozen smaller "improvements" to the functioning of the Department, such as establishing congressional reporting requirements on major department initiatives.

The final piece, the "National Homeland Security Authorization Act of 2004," makes nonsubstantive adjustments to the 2002 law.

The bill comes in response to two other homeland security bills now in circulation. One is sponsored by Homeland Security ranking member Jim Turner, D-Texas, whose "PREPARE Act" would prioritize first-responder funding, establish quality standards for their training and equipment and revise the threat advisory system.

Turner's bill sports an extensive list of co-sponsors-all Democrats.

Another bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., also would establish standards for emergency responders.

Cox called his bill "more ambitious" than Turner's because it is broader in scope.

"I think we'll be able to incorporate the lion's share of what is in the Democratic bill," he said.

Turner adopted a cooperative tone.

"I'm pleased Chairman Cox has introduced the legislation," he said. "We stand ready to work with them to incorporate the best of their bill and the PREPARE Act into a final version."

Although the bill comes at the end of the first session of the 108th Congress, Cox said he was confident he could hold hearings and complete a committee markup by the end of the month.

"Whether it makes it to the floor in the first session would depend on the House being in session for longer than is presently anticipated," but he said he believes it would come to a floor vote "before the snow melts in New Hampshire."