The new U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, appeared before Congress to discuss his agency's budget for next year. Lawmakers expressed concern over proposed cuts in homeland security funding for states and local communities.
The chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senator Susan Collins, says she is "troubled" by the proposed cuts in funding for homeland security programs for states, cities and towns across the country. She said such reductions would shortchange those on the frontlines in the war on terrorism, including state and local law enforcement personnel and firefighters:
"The administration's budget would cut and reshape the basic grant program such that smaller states could see as much as an 80 percent decrease in the amount of baseline funding that they could count on,” she explained. “That is not just a small drop. That is a leap off the cliff."
Senator Collins, a Maine Republican, cited a report by the Rand Corporation, which warned against overemphasizing improving preparedness of larger cities at the exclusion of smaller communities or rural areas. The report noted that much critical infrastructure and some potential high-value targets, including nuclear power plants, military installations, and agricultural facilities are located in less-populated areas.
"We cannot assume that the threat is concentrated just in large urban areas,” said Ms. Collins. “We have to assume that the terrorists are smart enough to figure our where we are not putting the resources."
Senator Collins also noted the proposed cuts come as the administration is about to issue a directive on preparedness standards for state and local governments to meet. She wondered how those governments would be able to comply without the adequate funding.
Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, agreed. He is concerned that his state faces a 75 percent cut in federal homeland security dollars:
"In order for America to be safe, all of America has to be safe," he added.
In his first appearance before the Senate panel since being sworn in, Secretary Chertoff defended his agency's $41 billion funding request, which is seven-percent higher than the department's current budget.
"I recognize that to every community there are things that are important,” he noted. “That does not mean we can fully fund everything that is important to every community. We have an obligation in dealing with terror in addressing those elements that would have the most consequences, to which there are the most vulnerabilities, and where there is an active threat. Those will require judgment calls."
Among the new programs in the agency's proposed budget is one that would establish an office to coordinate nuclear radiation detection efforts.
Senate and House committees will debate the homeland security budget and propose changes to the package before both chambers vote on it later this year.
Secretary Chertoff says he is conducting a review of his agency's programs to make sure they are efficient and effective.