The chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States yesterday sharply criticized senators for blocking a bill that would increase federal security dollars for target-rich states like New York.
Thomas Kean, who earlier this week called current formulas for allocating security funds "scandalous," focused his attack yesterday on a handful of senators from small states who are resisting a proposal that would lower the amount of money that goes to their states.
"Al Qaeda and bin Laden have been pretty specific about who they want to attack - either the financial strength of the country or our symbols of democracy," Mr. Kean said in an interview, "And that doesn't translate into farmland - that's New York City and Washington, and possibly some of our ports. Not to al locate our funds to meet that threat is crazy, and the fact that Congress hasn't done it yet is, I think, obscene."
The House of Representatives passed a bill in May by a vote of 405 to 10 that reduces to .25% from .75% the minimum amount of money that each state receives from the total pool of federal Homeland Security grants.
But the chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, Senator Collins, a Republican of Maine, has resisted allowing a similar plan to reach the floor of the Senate.
With the timetable for negotiations running out, Ms. Collins has shown little sign of retreat.
Ms. Collins did not respond to numerous requests for an interview this week. Her spokeswoman, Jen Burita, told The New York Sun on Wednesday that Ms. Collins was in Washington but unavailable for comment all day. Asked when she might be available, Ms. Burita suggested calling back Thursday. On Thursday, she put a legislative aide on the phone instead. When asked again for Ms. Collins, Ms. Burita declined.
The legislative aide, Michael Bopp, defended the Senate's proposal by noting that it guarantees smaller states enough money each year to meet certain federally mandated safety standards. He also questioned the rationale for the House version and said small states should not be singled out as having more potential for abuse.
"Some people say you're going to give money to Montana and North Dakota and they're going to waste it," Mr. Bopp, said. "But it's not just small states that do it. Wasteful spending take place in big cities too."
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, a Republican of New York, said he approached Ms. Collins at a White House Christmas Party earlier this week and suggested they sit down to negotiate. A meeting between the two has been scheduled for Monday.
Mr. King, who took over the committee in September, said he is upset at what he views as a disparity between the high-risk states and the low-risk states but that he does not want to sour a potential compromise by pointing fingers.
"I'm very upset by the issue itself," he said. "I'm upset by what's happening. I don't know Susan Collins very well, and people can get locked into the interests of their state. I can understand that. But I don't want bad blood to prevent a deal from happening."
Ms. Burita, in Ms. Collins' office, blamed Mr. King's staff for a delay in negotiations. She said tensions between the two staffs kept meaningful conversations from taking place. "It took a while before he even had people on staff who could even return a phone call," she said. "We've been trying for a long time to come up with a compromise. To say it's being held up by Senator Collins is just completely inaccurate."
A Republican congressman from Staten Island, Rep. Vito Fossella, decried the Senate proposal as a model of pork-barrel spending. But he too declined to name names.
"It's emblematic of what the mood is in Congress," Mr. Fossella said. "That everybody's got to get their piece of meat. I've said all along that sooner or later the American people will not and should not stand for doling out security dollars like everything else."
But a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, James Carafano, said the Senate would easily pass a bill similar to the one that passed in the House if Ms. Collins and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Lieberman, of Connecticut, would allow such a bill onto the floor for a vote. "If Lieberman and Collins don't want it to come out of the committee, it's not going to come out of the committee," Mr. Carafano said.
Mr. Lieberman's staff was also reluctant to put the senator on the phone. Two messages left with his press office on Wednesday were not returned. Contacted on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the former vice presidential candidate, Leslie Phillips, defended the Senate's proposal on the ground that calculating risk is not an exact science. Ms. Phillips chuckled twice when asked if Mr. Lieberman would have a few second to defend his position over the phone.
"Risk is an art, not a science," Ms. Phillips said. "Find me what a standard for risk is. Is New York at greater risk than Wyoming? Yes. Does New York get more money than Wyoming? Far more."
According to figures published by the Department of Homeland Security, eight states received more security grant money per capita in fiscal 2005 than New York: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. New York ($298.3 million) and California ($282.7 million) received far more money than any other state, but representatives of the two states say that's as it should be.
Mayor Bloomberg has been an outspoken critic of the Senate proposal. And as Mr. King and Ms. Collins prepare to negotiate next week, a spokesman for the mayor, Robert Lawson, said Mr. Bloomberg remains committed to a risk based allocation of funds.
"The mayor has long argued that Homeland Security funds must be allocated based on risk and not on political pork," Mr. Lawson said.
A Staten Island resident who sits on the board of directors of 9/11 Families for a Secure America," Mark Petrocelli, echoed Mr. Bloomberg. "It should be risk assessed," said Mr. Petrocelli, who lost a son-in-law on September 11. "It's New York, Chicago, and Washington against the majority of the rest of the country. The big cities are the ones at risk, and they are getting the least amount of money per capita. If you live in Wyoming, I guess you don't really care. I live in New York, and I know this is where the risk is."
According to the current federal funding formula, each state gets no less than .75% of the entire pool of funds, with the balance of the money divided up on a per capita basis. The result, critics say, is that rural states like Wyoming and Montana end up with more than they need and target-rich states like New York end up with less than they need.
The Senate has passed on several opportunities to alter the formula, with the most recent opportunity coming yesterday during final negotiations for reauthorization of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. The conferees on that committee, who are named by Ms. Collins and Mr. Lieberman, came up one vote shy of approving a plan that would have allocated more funds according to risk.
Most of the senators who held out were from small states: Senator Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia; Senator Leahy, Democrat of Vermont; Senator Roberts, Republican of Kansas; Senator Hatch, Republican of Utah, and Senator DeWine, Republican of Ohio.
Mr. Kean, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey, said he is comfortable with the House bill that passed last spring because "the vast majority of funds go where they're needed."
Noting the overwhelming majority that approved the House bill, Mr. Kean expressed disbelief over the Senate's reluctance to pass a similar one. Of the 10 congressmen who voted against the House bill, two, Michael Michaud and Thomas Allen, were from Maine, a state with only two representatives in the House. A "60 Minutes" program broadcast earlier this year found that rural counties were spending homeland security funds on things such as transporting riding lawnmowers and buying a defibrillator for high school basketball games. New York City, meanwhile, has had to increase local taxes to help pay for police overtime and raise private funds for programs like sending counter-terrorism police officers overseas to gather intelligence.
"If there is another attack and our recommendations haven't been taken seriously, then what will we say?" Mr. Kean said. "What are we going to tell our children? I've talked to Senator Collins, and she said she is going to work the best bill she can. I understand she represents Maine, but this is something that's important for the whole country. If New York City gets hit, Maine gets hit too."