Call this another confirmation of the sorriest rule in American politics: In Washington, it is easier to pass a bad bill than a good one. National security and American lives may be at stake -- but the forces of pork-barrel spending will win out.
So last week, as U.S. senators deliberated on whether to pass a homeland-security bill that would allocate either 60 percent -- or 87 percent -- of some $3 billion in Homeland Security grants to communities deemed at greatest risk, the Senate chose the option with the greater helping of pork for each state.
In fact, the Senate voted 71 to 26 in favor of the porkier option.
"We've got two senators from each of these small states and they control the place," explained Howard Gantman, spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein sponsored the failed 87 percent plan. It should be noted that the senator wanted every dime of the Homeland Security grants to be allocated by risk, "but," she conceded in a prepared statement, "I understand the realities of the Senate."
No doubt Feinstein understands those realities even better today. Not that she should be happy about it. And this is the new improved version of homeland-security spending.
After Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation ostensibly was uniting and preparing to battle terrorism, Washington came together to devise formulas to best burn through $10 billion in homeland-security funding. Wyoming received almost $10 per capita in terrorism funding, while New York and California each received $1.33 and $1.38 per head.
"60 Minutes" aired a sharp piece on the local-spending bonanza that followed. Tiptonville, Tenn., bought an all-terrain vehicle, a couple of defibrillators -- one was used at high-school basketball games -- and protective suits for the volunteer fire department. Newark, N.J., purchased air-conditioned garbage trucks and Columbus, Ohio, spent its terror money on bulletproof dog vests.
I called the offices of Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., sponsors of the 60-percent scheme and chairwoman and ranking Dem on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, to hear why they support a system that is weighted more toward geography than the greatest risk.
Committee staff director Michael Bopp made the point that the Collins-Lieberman bill would allocate another 20 percent of grants to the 19 most populous or dense states based on risk criteria. OK, but when senators form California and New York vote ix-nay, it's because they know where the dollars are -- and are not. They trust the Feinstein plan more.
Be it noted that two of the Sept. 11 terrorists boarded a plane in Portland, Maine -- which bolsters the argument that terrorist training often takes place in the boonies (like Leeds, before the London attacks.) "All states need to be part of the prevention efforts," Bopp added.
Collins also pushed for "tough new standards" to prevent "intolerable" waste. On the floor, she promised, "no more spending Homeland Security dollars on leather jackets in the District or air-conditioned garbage trucks in New Jersey." This formula should insure that every state has steady funding for its first-responder efforts.
Then again, as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, a critic of Homeland pork, told "60 Minutes," the problem is that "in the end, everything has something to do with homeland security."
This issue defies your ideas of how Washington works. The House passed a more responsible measure than the Senate bill -- which means that fiscally minded people should look to the House, not the Senate, for better policy.
Leading moderates -- read Collins and Lieberman -- are on the porcine team. Even GOP maverick Sen. John McCain voted for the porkier plan. (Say it ain't so!)
Meanwhile, Feinstein is joined by President Bush and Sen. Barbara Boxer in wanting more money to go to cities and ports that just might be terrorist targets.
Which would I rather see underfunded in the war on terrorism -- Jackson Hole or Los Angeles? Gee, I think I'd rather see Jackson Hole do with less.
But the forces of reason will remain in the minority as long as Beltway pols believe they are better off padding their districts than doing what is best for the country. They don't believe their constituents would turn on them if there is an attack in a big city that is under-defended because it is underfunded.
It's the rule of Washington politics redux: In Washington, it is easier to pass a bad bill than a good one -- because elected officials think that's what the public wants.
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