On Sept. 11, 2001, America had no strategy for homeland security. That changed quickly after the attacks. The Bush White House issued the first homeland security strategy in July 2002.
In putting together that strategy, the toughest choices were deciding first, what was essential to include, and second, who should be responsible for each element. These strategic choices were crucial, not just for security reasons, but because they determine who pays for what.
The 2002 strategy relied on the principles of federalism. Federal, state and local governments all had responsibilities. The federal government was responsible for combating terrorism overseas. Meanwhile, state and local governments were expected to provide most of the resources for emergency response and preparedness. And the private sector bore most of the burden for securing critical infrastructure, since most of the assets were in private hands.
It was a good plan, but it didn’t last long.
Beginning in 2004, his annual budget proposal started accounting for federal Homeland Security spending by department and, overall, by the mission areas listed in the strategy. But the budget did not detail how that money was being spent. Increasingly, federal dollars were siphoned off to pay for all kinds of things that arguably were none of the federal government’s business.
The 9/11 Commission warned that Homeland Security Department grants could become just another category of “pork barrel legislation.” That’s pretty much what happened. Initially intended to give state and local governments a shot of funding to deal with post-9/11 uncertainty, the grants became a new political entitlement.
Perversely, congressional support was strongest for some of the least effective programs — assistance for firefighter grants, fire prevention and safety grants, and staffing for adequate fire and emergency response grants — commonly referred to as “fire grants.” Heritage Foundation analyst David Muhlhausen found that communities receiving grants had no better records of reducing firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths and civilian injuries than towns that didn’t get a penny of federal money.
The use of FEMA to assist state and local governments had the result of throwing federal money at every local problem. Presidential disaster declarations became more and more frequent, and state and local governments were more than happy to have the feds pick up the tab for their basic response and recovery functions. Last month, President Barack Obama set a new record, issuing his 158th disaster declaration. And that was before the first hurricane of the season made landfall. The White House is on pace to issue nearly 300 declarations by Christmas.
These declarations produce “free money” for local governments, but they are anything but a free lunch. Washington is far over budget on disaster spending. When Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., had the temerity to suggest that new disaster spending be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, he was denounced as callous.
In fact, the opposite is true. The more Washington steps in to pay for disasters, the less planning and resources state and local government devote to preparedness. This leaves our communities more vulnerable to catastrophe, as a federal response must always lag the local and state response.
Given the federal budget crunch, the days of free-wheeling spending on homeland security are coming to an end. Washington will now have to decide how to cut back. It could use the discipline of a federalist approach, similar to that embodied in the first homeland security strategy. Or it can continue to fund politicians’ pet projects and neglect the federal government’s real responsibilities.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.