Sunday, July 31, 2005

For Security, Follow the House

The New York Times
July 31, 2005
For Security, Follow the House

After the London bombings, it is more obvious than ever that next year's Homeland Security budget should direct as much money as possible to the places most at risk of attack. But that may not happen. The Senate, disgracefully, voted this month to take money from states like New York, California and Texas, which are at greatest risk, and give it to states like Wyoming. But the House of Representatives has now done the right thing, and voted to hand out more of the money based on risk. When the final formula is settled on, it is important that the House version prevail.

The 9/11 commission and the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, have both stated that the only responsible way to allocate antiterrorism funds is by degree of risk. But many members of Congress have ignored this expert advice and treated the Homeland Security budget like any other pot of money in Washington, supporting whatever formula sends the most to their states.

The Senate's domestic security committee, which is headed by Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, should be fighting for a formula that will direct the most money to where it is needed the most. But instead, Ms. Collins formed an alliance with other representatives of small, low-risk states, and came up with a formula that is dangerously skewed in favor of the states that need the money the least.

Earlier this month, the Senate was faced with a fateful choice. It could have voted for Ms. Collins's irresponsible formula, which showers antiterrorism money on rural America, or an alternative formula backed by all six senators from New York, California and Texas to direct more money to high-risk states. In a low moment for the war on terror, the Senate voted for the Collins amendment. That was good news for rural areas that face little real threat of terrorism, but the chemical plants, ports and subway systems that terrorists are likely to take aim at would be left unnecessarily vulnerable.

After the Senate acted, the House voted for a far superior formula. It adopted an amendment sponsored by Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and John Sweeney, a New York Republican, that would distribute more of the Homeland Security funds on the bases of threats, vulnerability and consequences of an attack. It would do this in part by using substantially lower "state minimums" - money that is guaranteed to small, low-risk states regardless of whether they are in serious danger of being attacked.

Now it is up to the two houses to reconcile their funding formulas. There are reports that the Senate may be considering dropping the misguided Collins amendment, now that the House has passed a superior formula that would do more to make the nation safe. That is the right thing to do.

If the Senate stands by its formula, when the time comes to reconcile the House and Senate formulas, Dennis Hastert, the House speaker, and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, should make sure that the House holds firm. Defending America from acts of terrorism will not be easy in the best of circumstances. It will be a lot harder if the Collins amendment's formula becomes law, and scarce Homeland Security dollars are turned into a wasteful gravy train.