Are We Ready for the Next 9/11?

The sorry state--and stunning waste--of homeland security spending.

What do gym memberships, the Fourteen Mile Bridge in Mobile, Alabama, and a promotional campaign for a child pornography tip-line have in common? Answer: They all were funded with your homeland security dollars.

Since September 11, Congress has appropriated nearly $180 billion to protect Americans from terrorism. Total spending on homeland security in 2006 will be at least $50 billion--roughly $450 per American household. But far from making us more secure, the money is being allocated like so much pork. States and cities are spending federal homeland security grants on pet projects that have nothing to do with homeland security; state and local officials fight over who will get the biggest share of the money, regardless of whether they have a legitimate claim to it. And when Congress isn't doling out cash indiscriminately, it's overreacting to yesterday's attacks instead of concentrating on cost-effective defenses against the most likely current threats. The result is an edifice that, far from preventing terrorist assaults, actually makes us more vulnerable by diverting resources from worthier projects.

How did this happen? There are four chief reasons.

1. The Oversight Problem

Homeland security spending occurs in an environment that is highly conducive to waste, fraud, and abuse, starting with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) itself. When the department was created, proponents argued that we'd get an entity with sole fiscal responsibility for the government's efforts against terrorism, thus increasing transparency, enhancing efficiency, and facilitating information-sharing. Instead, the opposite happened.

Notwithstanding its name, DHS' activities are not strictly directed at protecting the homeland. Of a fiscal year 2006 budget of $41 billion, the department will spend only $27 billion on activities related to homeland security. The remaining $14 billion finances activities ranging from Coast Guard rescues to hurricane aid.

Conversely, much homeland security spending takes place outside of the department. The total amount directed to homeland security activities in fiscal year 2006 is roughly $50 billion. But $23 billion of that will be spent by departments other than DHS. Not surprisingly, a large portion--$9.5 billion--goes to the Department of Defense. But other funding decisions are more curious. Why, for instance, are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commerce Department, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration receiving homeland security funds?

With the money split between so many departments and programs, DHS and Congress cannot conduct effective oversight. The new department has authority over the agencies that were subsumed into it, whether or not it makes sense for them to be combined, but not over the many more security-related entities that remain outside its auspices. For example, the secret service, which is almost exclusively in charge of the president's security, was moved from the Department of Treasury to DHS, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation remains inside the Department of Justice with no DHS oversight.

Even more important, though, is Congress' failure to match the consolidation of DHS with the consolidation of its oversight of the DHS' constituent parts. Even after the combination of more than two dozen agencies, committee chairs have been unwilling to relinquish much of their jurisdiction over the 22 agencies and activities transferred to DHS. As a result, last year alone the leaders of DHS had to appear before 88 congressional committees and subcommittees.

Agencies are always aggressive advocates for expansion of their budgets and aggressive defenders of their statutory mandates. With so much of the spending so diffused, the current structure simply invites waste.

2. The Magic Word "Security"

Effective oversight is especially important in this area, given the political effect of the phrase homeland security, which tends to short-circuit skepticism. Even DHS activities unrelated to homeland security are apt to see their funding increase, on the assumption that they have something to do with the function indicated by the department's name. Programs that Congress might not approve if they were outside DHS now sail through because of their affiliation. In Christmas 2004, for instance, the department handed out $153 million to programs offering food and shelter for the poor, a significant increase from the previous year's budget. In September 2004, the Senate attached $2.9 billion to the fiscal year 2005 homeland security bill for disaster aid to farm states affected by droughts, floods, and freezes.

The surge in spending to strengthen homeland security has given lawmakers many opportunities to indulge in their common passions: bragging about protecting the country from terrorists and directing federal funds to their home districts. Federal coffers are wide open to fight terrorism, and lawmakers are predictably pushing projects allegedly aimed at protecting their constituents. 2002's infamous $190 billion farm bill, renamed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, is a good example of such congressional hornswoggling.

Despite promises by appropriators to pass a pork-free homeland security bill and a presidential ban on earmarks forbidding lawmakers from slipping their pet projects into the bill at the last moment, Congress loaded the fiscal year 2006 homeland security bill with earmark projects having nothing to do with homeland security, and President Bush signed it. Among these projects: $7.9 million for investigations of missing and exploited children; $102,000 to promote public awareness of the child pornography tip line; $203,000 for Project Alert, a drug use prevention program for schools; $15.8 million to enforce laws against forced child labor; $500,000 to continue steel tariff training, a program "to ensure Customs and Border Protection (CBP) enforcement of U.S. trade laws benefits from the expertise of the steel industry in classifying steel goods"; and $15 billion for bridge alterations in Mobile, Alabama; LaCrosse, Wisconsin; Chelsea, Massachusetts; Galveston, Texas; Morris, Illinois; and Burlington, Iowa.

3. Failure to Prioritize

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