Napolitano Balks at 3% Cut: Cites New Terror Threats
Business + Economy

Napolitano Balks at 3% Cut: Cites New Terror Threats

Alex Wong/Getty Images

With an annual price tag of $55 billion, the sprawling Department of Homeland Security would is a likely target for congressional budget cutters who are looking for ways to tame a projected $1.5 trillion deficit this year.  In a preemptive move Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano fired a warning shot that may make austerity cuts to the program seem irresponsible.  “In some ways, the threat today may be at its most heightened state since the attacks nearly 10 years ago,” Napolitano said. 

Moreover, virtually every state benefits from homeland security spending – from big terrorist targets like New York and New Jersey to unlikely targets such as Alabama and Tennessee, which makes it harder for lawmakers to go after the budget.  Practically every community has taken advantage of  homeland security funding, to beef up their police, fire fighting and ambulance service, to improve communication systems, and to rehearse for potential disasters or terrorist attacks.

“Part of the problem is that a lot of the homeland security spending has become constituent politics,” said Jena McNeill, homeland security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.  “Every state has something they consider very important, and that includes things that wouldn’t shut the country down if they were attacked by a terrorist squad.”

But even Homeland Security is not completely immune to cuts, in an era of enhanced concern about the deficit and long term debt. The House Appropriations Committee this week issued a list of proposed spending cuts for the remainder of the current fiscal year including a 3 percent across-the-board reduction in Homeland Security allocations.

A 3-percent reduction is small compared to other cuts the committee is seeking in non-defense discretionary spending, ranging from 9 percent to 18 percent, but slightly larger than the 2 percent cut recommended for defense.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. said the committee will “produce legislation that will represent the largest series of spending reductions in the history of Congress.”

“These cuts will not be easy, they will be broad and deep, they will affect every congressional district, but they are necessary and long overdue,” Rogers said. That’s easy to say; harder to accomplish, particularly the part about affecting “every congressional district.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had two categories for threat level for American cities and states – Tier I, which includes ten cities like New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and Boston; and Tier II, which includes cities in 30 states, including Oxnard, Calif., Toledo, Ohio and Memphis, Tenn. 

Napolitano, testifying Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee, said that it would be difficult and unwise to attempt to cut her department’s budget by 3 percent across the board. She said that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Congress has been “building” the department, created out of 22 agencies, to address vital national security threats.

Napolitano acknowledged that there could be “redundancies” in such a large department and said her managers are looking for them.  But she told the panel that the GOP effort to scale back her department’s spending to 2008 levels “without understanding operational impacts to this kind of work would probably not be what I would advise from a budgetary standpoint.”

Napolitano warned that efforts to recruit Westerners for attacks against the United States have  greatly heightened the threat of terrorism. The latest intelligence shows that the threat from Al Qaeda cells and their allies--is increasingly coming from inside the country,   Napolitano said–noting that another attack could come "with little or no warning."

The massive homeland security department, created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has many detractors.  A 2005 report by the American Enterprise Institute found frequent overlapping or redundancy of grants and the politicization of funding.  The study found that the department was indiscriminate in its funding of security projects, with money going to tiny ports with dubious security needs as well as large ports with obvious security challenges. Quoting in internal audit at DHS, the AEI report noted that money went to ports such as “Christiansted in the Virgin Islands, Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma, and six ports in Alaska, none of which appeared to meet the grant eligibility requirements.”

However, the combination of Napolitano’s latest warning and state concerns about protecting their grants and aids may make it difficult to get a 3 percent cut through Congress.        Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, is arguing that homeland security funds for New York should not be cut. “The main function of government is to protect people against attack,” King said in an interview, noting that New York is one of the main terrorist targets in the U.S.

King said that getting the economy going by cutting the budget deficit is a high GOP priority, but warned:  “If we lose thousands of people in a terrorist attack, that’s a serious setback to the budget as well. Keeping people alive has to come first.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a self-described “fiscally conservative Blue Dog,” earlier this month announced what is a typical homeland security grant -- $1.1 million to the West Sacramento Fire Department which, he said, will help the department obtain emergency response equipment--including 543 portable radios. The grant came through an application to DHS from the department and did not go through Congress. “This is exactly the kind of spending the homeland security grants were instituted to address,” he said. Thompson’s press secretary, Caroline Hogan, said one of Thompson’s priorities is to ensure that emergency personnel “have the resources they need to protect the public. The West Sacramento Fire Department and its regional agencies needed radio equipment to help coordinate their response to emergencies affecting over 1.3 million Northern Californians across 500 square miles.”

Former Rep. William Frenzel, R-Minn., a budget expert with the Brookings Institution, said all Homeland Security expenses are not created equal. “The homeland will never be secure as long as we have the debt and deficit overhang. If anybody believes that DHS expenditures are all absolutely necessary, I have a bridge to sell them,” he said in response to a question from The Fiscal Times on a web chat.