An End to Pork Barrel Security Grants?

With the New Year came new requirements for disbursing grants in the Urban Area Security Initiative, one of the five major programs that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses to provide federal funds to state and local governments.

The new guidelines are a step in the right direction, turning a grant program that was in danger of becoming pork barrel spending into an effective security tool. DHS should apply this same approach to all of its assistance programs. There are also steps that Congress can take to ensure that federal dollars are spent more wisely.

Better Allocation of Funds

There are three significant changes to the urban grant program:

Regional Approach Required. Disasters and terrorists do not respect political boundaries. Only a regional approach to counterterrorism and disaster response will do. The program now requires neighboring urban areas (like Dallas-Ft. Worth- Arlington) to submit a single application for funds that reflects their joint needs.

Highest Priorities First. Federal dollars need to be spent in a way that makes all Americans safer—that means building a national system and focusing on the prevention of and response to catastrophic disasters. The greatest needs have to be funded first and fully. To determine which urban areas should receive funds, this year’s grant allocations will take into account threat assessments from the intelligence community; an analysis of critical infrastructure vulnerability; population density; activity and investigation reports; and the status of mutual aid cooperation. This is a sophisticated and fair way to determine funding priorities.

Investment Justification Required. The new system doesn’t just throw money at the problem. Those seeking grants have to explain how federal dollars will be spent, how their proposals meet strategic priorities, and how success will be measured.
Congress Can Help

The Hill can help make these program improvements even better. Here is how:

Insist that DHS establish regional offices to work with states and local governments to improve mutual aid cooperation.

Reduce the minimum allocations of grants to states in the state homeland security program. By the current formula, only 60 percent of the funds are allocated based on risk.

End the "Fire Grant" program. Providing equipment and hiring firemen for small-town fire departments is a local responsibility, not a federal one. Over $2 billion has already been spent.

Combinetransportation and port security grants into a single program and allocate those funds to assist in information sharing and counterterrorism activities, not buying fences and hiring gate guards.

Move On

DHS has performed yeoman’s work in reforming a wasteful program. Its risk-based methodology should be applied to all security grants. Congress should undertake the reforms needed to make the process work even better.