From TPM Muckraker, a progressive weblog devoted to original reporting on public corruption, an interesting essay by Justin Rood on the recent revelation that there are no national monuments or icons in New York:
Almost immediately after the Homeland Security Department announced its grant awards to major cities, condemnations were launched. What appeared to be deep cuts in funding for New York City and Washington, D.C. were decried by lawmakers and pundits as incompetence and worse (my favorite: Buzzflash said it was "raw, oozing evil"). Some have called for the resignation of Tracy Henke, the DHS official who oversees the grant program; some have even called for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to step down.
Let's take a deep breath.
I'm hardly a loyalist and defender of the Homeland Security Department. But in this case I think they may be the dog that's whipped when it's the owner who deserves the punishment. In fact, the future may show DHS is -- gasp -- forward-thinking.
First, place the blame where it belongs: President Bush's 2006 budget request cut funding for the urban area grant program. Congress approved the cut. Congress also made big noises that the DHS grant award program should be "de-politicized" -- that is, make sure that some areas aren't given more money than others simply because they have political clout. Also, the free-marketeers in Congress thought the process should be a little more Darwinian, and pushed to make grants "competitive" -- DHS shouldn't make assumptions, but force grantees to prove they'd spend the government's money wisely.
So DHS cooked up a new process, which -- by its very results -- appears to be both apolitical and competitive. Guess what? New York lost. Washington, D.C. lost. Congress, welcome to the program you micromanaged and whose funding you cut. Prez, enjoy another hit to your poll numbers.
(The cities hold some blame, too. I've spoken to a trusted source familiar with the cities' applications, whose unequivocal opinion is that certain portions stank. That opinion is backed up by the result of the grant review process.)
Would it have been politically easier for DHS to tilt the process and move some more pork over to New York and D.C.? Absolutely. But given what we know, it would be cheating the process, and cheating other deserving cities.
That's not to say there weren't problems with the grant award process. As CQ's Eileen Sullivan points out today, some smaller deserving cities may have been improperly cut out of the process almost completely:
By the department's account, there are zero military bases in the Las Vegas region. But Nellis Air Force base is within the 10-mile buffer zone the department considers the Las Vegas region. In addition, the Hoover Dam is 30 miles outside Las Vegas city limits, but the department does not include it as a critical asset in its assessment of the Las Vegas region. . . .
In the department's assessment of San Diego’s geographic risks, it says the city has more than 500,000 border crossers a year. However, that number is slightly off, said the city's Homeland Security Director Jill Olen -- there are more than 500,000 border crossers a month . . . Olen said. The San Ysidro border crossing happens to be the busiest in the nation, she said.
Both Las Vegas and San Diego were dropped from the department’s urban area funding list for 2006 and were only eligible to receive "sustainment" funds.
Do the grant awards mean America is less safe? Who knows. The fact that New York and DC got stiffed on these grants hardly means they've been forsaken by federal counterterror efforts -- I'm sure there are more federal assets dedicated to protecting these two cities than any others. (Although that was probably true on Sept. 11, as well.)
It's entirely possible that DHS could even be celebrated for the way it has calculated risk and distributed funds. Since 9/11, there's been a growing concern that the next wave of extremist Islamic terror attacks will come not in the form of a showy strike in a major city, but as a series of suicide bombings in smaller urban areas. If that's the case, then channeling funds to cities like Detroit or Omaha will seem prescient; shoveling cash to sophisticated, already-hardened target cities like New York or Washington will look like the government is fighting yesterday's battle.
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