Homeland security chair calls for restraint in first responder spending

Soon after Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., was tapped to chair the House's newest panel, the Select Committee on Homeland Security, he hired two CIA alums as his top aides.

At hearings, he has peppered Homeland Security Department officials with questions about the department's intelligence operations and capacity. So, when it came time to write his first major bill as chairman, Cox predictably focused on intelligence.

His goal is to get Washington to be smarter about the way it distributes homeland-security money for so-called "first responders" and to stop treating those funds as just the latest form of pork-barrel spending.

Cox's proposal, unveiled last month, would require the Homeland Security Department to award its first-responder grants solely on the basis of how likely a given location is to be attacked by terrorists. Cox wants to merge information about known threats -- terrorist groups' capabilities and desires -- with data about critical infrastructure's vulnerability to an attack. He would then have the department use the results to produce a list of priorities for its first-responder spending.

But the Homeland Security Department balked at Cox's Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act. That conflict is increasing the strain on the already-difficult relationship between the department and the committee. "The purpose of the Homeland Security Department, and its mission, is to prevent terrorism and protect us from its consequences when it occurs," Cox said. "It is not to give every state a fixed percentage of Washington pork." He noted that the Defense Department uses no such formulas and said that unless homeland security is less important than national security, the Homeland Security Department should not either.

Spending money in proportion to the actual level of risk sounds like common sense. Risk management is standard operating procedure in the corporate world. But, by and large, that's not the case in homeland security. From a practical standpoint, it's very hard to assemble a comprehensive national analysis of threats and vulnerabilities. Politically, it's tough to tell any community it doesn't deserve as much protection -- or as many federal dollars -- as others are getting.

Since Sept. 11, the federal government has handed out $6 billion to first responders. Most has been distributed using a formula that guarantees each state at least 0.75 percent of the money and takes states' populations into account.

Wyoming, hardly anyone's idea of the state most in danger of a terrorist strike, tops the list of federal per capita homeland-security spending for first responders, having received $35.31 per resident. California is in last place, with $4.68 per person. And New York doesn't do much better, with just $5.05 per person.

This month, with great fanfare, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that $2.2 billion would be made available for first responders in fiscal 2004. That money is controlled by the standard formula. Another $725 million is for "urban-area security grants," which go to 30 large cities roughly in accordance with the security risk that each faces.

The department sent Cox its own proposal, which largely maintained the current allocation system. "It did not represent a real effort," Cox said. "It is simply a skimpy ratification of the pre-9/11 status quo." But the department, which inherited its state formula from language that Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote into the USA PATRIOT Act, says the current funding system works well.

As one senior Homeland Security official put it, "We believe there needs to be a baseline capability in the country to prevent, respond to, and recover from a terrorist attack and other hazards. To do that, all areas need to receive a certain amount of money."

The department wants up to 50 percent of its first-responder money to be distributed on the basis of risk assessments.

Yet outside of Washington, Cox's idea has considerable backing, especially in big cities, which stand to gain the most. "He has my support," said Noel Cunningham, chief of police for the Port of Los Angeles, who recently met with Cox about port security.

Producing an accurate risk analysis poses an enormous technical challenge. It requires what former CIA Associate Deputy Director for Operations John MacGaffin calls "a four-dimensional matrix" that weighs the relative importance of protecting a given asset; vulnerabilities; terrorists' capabilities and motives; and the current security effort. While the task is clearly difficult, Cox says he thinks it's time for the department to take off the training wheels and actually make risk assessments, drawing on the resources of national research laboratories, the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

Today, even the department's urban grants are largely based on population. Cities that apply for these grants are given scores according to population, vulnerability, and threat. Then, each city's population score is multiplied by 9, its vulnerability score by 6, and its threat score by 3. And the higher the total score, the larger the grant.

Meanwhile, the department's initial steps toward comprehensive risk assessments have not been reassuring to outside observers. Nationwide, the department has identified 180 key elements of infrastructure. The department has identified 4,000 chemical facilities of concern, and it plans to evaluate a dozen other infrastructure industries.

But just 20 states have sent the department the reports it requested on critical infrastructure. State officials filling out the department's questionnaire wonder what information federal officials hope to glean. Homeland-security consultant John Cohen, who recently completed Massachusetts's report, said that the questions are quantitative, not qualitative. They mostly ask the states to count up potential threats, Cohen said, but don't ask how they reached their conclusions.

Clifford Ong, who oversees Indiana's homeland-security effort, worries that the department isn't consulting with states on what constitutes "critical infrastructure." For example, he said, Homeland Security isn't taking food-processing facilities into consideration in evaluating agricultural infrastructure that is vulnerable to attack.

Despite Cox's best intentions, tying homeland-security grant money to a given locale's actual risk could create a set of perverse incentives. It could reduce funds for localities that have spent their own money to heighten security, for example, or those that have spent their initial federal funds most wisely. Basing grants on perceived need could also be a very time-consuming process.

"The system would literally screech to a halt," warned one senior Homeland Security official, who predicted that under Cox's bill, thousands of grant applications would flood the department's information-analysis wing, which isn't prepared to review grant applications.

On Capitol Hill, Cox has some allies, but it's hard to tell how many. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., another advocate of bolstering the department's intelligence capacity, is on board. Cox's Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, says he strongly supports Cox's push for real security risk assessments, and he's working with Cox to merge the ideas in his own bill with those in Cox's.

Turner said, "I think he sees the wisdom of much of what is in our bill." Turner's proposal would establish minimum homeland-security standards for every locality and commit the federal government to helping communities reach those levels, even though the money needed to achieve those standards might be greater in New York City than in Turner's district in East Texas.

According to one congressional observer, Cox's proposal "hasn't been massaged or scrubbed in such a way that you would get buy-in from the cardinals on the Appropriations Committee. It's a political town, and you only get elected if you bring money home. What I'm hearing is, they didn't coordinate within their own party."

Nor has Cox coordinated with the Senate, where Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is proposing to maintain the minimum allocations to states but make 40 percent of the money subject to risk analysis. "Terrorists are going to constantly evaluate our vulnerabilities. And they are going to seek to probe the weakest point," Collins said. "If we exclude some states altogether from receiving homeland-security funding, we will create vulnerabilities."

Yet Cox and his aides think they can prevail. "Basing funding on threat and vulnerability is right. And how do you argue against that out of anything but parochial politics?" asked Vincent Sollitto, communications director for Cox's committee. "How do you vote for parochial politics and against homeland security? That's how we're going to sell it."

Some critics of Cox's legislation dismiss it as merely an effort to justify the existence of the select committee. Congress is slated to decide the panel's fate next September. And some congressional observers predict that Cox's bill will get caught up in the battle over whether to make the committee permanent. "This particular committee needs to put its foot down and say, 'We're the authorizers,' " said one congressional aide. "There's a fight within a fight here."

And next year's presidential election could make Cox's push for new funding formulas more difficult. If the White House weren't on the line next year, Cox and Turner might have collaborated from the outset. Turner has gone out of his way to establish his as the Democrats' bill, with 147 Democratic co-sponsors.

Cox may find it impossible to both rewrite the first-responder funding formulas and force the Homeland Security Department to seriously begin doing risk assessments. If so, one longtime observer suggests that Cox focus first on the risk assessment mandate and on building up the department's ability to gauge threats and vulnerabilities. Then in a separate bill, perhaps after the election, Cox could take another pass at linking first-responder money to risk. But even then, he'd likely have to figure out a way to make members feel that first-responder spending contains something for everyone -- regardless of need.