Saturday, June 03, 2006

Pork Barrels As Terrorism Prevention

You could crouch behind them, I guess. But more seriously, the way federal resources have recently been re-allocated between cities which might be at risk of terrorist attacks does smell of pork barreling. An editorial in the Washington Post summarizes my thoughts on the topic fairly well:

MICHAEL CHERTOFF took control of the Department of Homeland Security calling for a more rational, risk-based allotment of federal resources to prepare for and combat the threat of terrorist attacks. So where is the rationality, and what is the risk, that would justify increasing homeland security grants to Charlotte, Omaha, Milwaukee and Tampa and cutting those to New York and Washington?

Unfortunately, Mr. Chertoff and his team aren't offering satisfying explanations for those funding decisions, which were determined according to a formula -- ostensibly risk-based -- whose details are secret. If there is a sound reason why Louisville's grant has jumped by 70 percent while the Washington area's and New York's have plummeted by 40 percent, we haven't heard it. If there is any sense to rating the risk of catastrophe in Washington in the bottom 25 percent of the nation's cities, while rating the Washington metropolitan area in the top 25 percent, we haven't heard that, either.

The temptingly cynical interpretation is that the changes in 2006 funding are all about pork-barrel spending, but that's probably wrong. Texas is about as red as states get, but homeland security grants to Houston, Dallas and San Antonio have been slashed, in some cases severely, and they are among the nation's 10 most populous cities. Nonetheless, the procedure by which funding was determined -- 17 "peer review panels" composed of representatives from 48 states and two U.S. territories reviewed grant applications -- seems to have ensured that political balance trumped a cool-headed assessment of real risk. That is exactly the problem that Mr. Chertoff correctly identified when he entered office and promised to address.

Or alternatively, Chertoff may be trying to convince us that the government can do nothing right by doing nothing right. We've already been told that the government can't cope with the aftermath of hurricanes and can't do anything much should the bird flu become a pandemic. Soon we might hear that each of us should hire our own police forces and poison detectors, because we are so much more efficient in that than the government.