Security by the Barrel
The politics of staying safe is still politics, whatever you choose to call it.
The legislative process is a machine for distributing money and other rewards to favored constituencies. That may seem obvious, but we sometimes want to pretend otherwise when the subject is one of grave importance--such as homeland security. Indeed, members of Congress have so far treaded carefully on this issue, refusing, for example, to place earmarks on the homeland security money they hand out. But sooner or later the realities of pork-barrel politics are going to creep in. They crept in this summer when Congress refused to change the formula that allocates money to "low-value" security targets such as Wyoming at the expense of more vulnerable places such as New York and California.
It doesn't take a total cynic to notice that most of the states that lose out under the existing formula are dominated by Democrats, while Congress is controlled by Republicans. On the other hand, Democrats can't really claim they would do much better if the situation were reversed. When you examine homeland security decisions that are made at the state level, you find Democratic officeholders behaving in an equally political way.
New Jersey, where both the legislature and governorship are in Democratic hands, has sent 93 percent of its homeland security equipment grants over the past three years to towns that are located in legislative districts represented by Democrats. The district of one powerful Democratic state senator alone received nearly as much as all districts in the entire state represented by Republicans.
It can be argued that Democratic turf in the Garden State is more urban, more congested, and thus more likely to be the target of a terrorist attack. But that doesn't explain why New Jersey suburbs represented by Democrats get more state help for homeland security than demographically similar areas represented by Republican legislators, according to an analysis by the Newark Star-Ledger.
An administration spokesman in New Jersey says that fixes are being made and, in any case, equipment grants represent only a tiny fraction of homeland security dollars, most of which have been distributed "very evenhandedly." That may be. But the fact remains that New Jersey, along with most states, has tried to be secretive about its distributions. Some state governments are shielding the information even from legislators.
"The minuscule advantage of terrorists knowing where you're spending money is outweighed by transparency," says James Carafano, who monitors homeland security for the Heritage Foundation. "I think in some cases it's just hiding the fact that they don't know what they're doing or they don't have a plan."
New Jersey, which four years ago lost hundreds of residents in the September 11 attacks, should have a special sensitivity to the need for doing public protection right. Politicians there and throughout the country might try a little harder to resist the impulse to treat homeland security as just another monetary prize.