U.S. Freezes Aid for Workers First in Line on Terror Response
Although President Bush has repeatedly promised to boost federal aid to firefighters and other emergency workers, the Justice Department this week temporarily suspended awarding grants to aid these first responders to terrorist attacks.
Administration officials said the delay in the program, which had been expected to get a big budget hike in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, stemmed from the failure of Congress to finish the budget for domestic programs before adjourning last month. Instead, lawmakers postponed final spending decisions until mid-January at the earliest.
“At this point, we can only speculate on the availability of resources for the balance of the fiscal year,” said Assistant Atty. Gen. Deborah J. Daniels in a memo Monday explaining why a variety of programs and initiatives was being postponed.
At issue is a program, which took on new visibility and importance after the terrorist attacks, that provides grants to state and local governments to provide equipment and training for fire and police departments and other agencies that are likely to be among the first to respond to a terrorist attack.
Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, who released a copy of Daniels’ memo, upbraided the department for not continuing to award grants with the money included in the interim funding bill Congress passed to finance programs through Jan. 11.
The Justice Department grant freeze “follows a pattern of Bush holding highly trumped-up photo ops with first responders and then subsequently rejecting money for them,” committee Democrats said.
The grant program for the first responders is just one of many homeland security programs thrown into limbo because Congress passed none of the 11 appropriation bills needed to finance domestic programs for the budget year that began Oct. 1. Instead, Congress provided only short-term funding at 2002 levels -- delaying expected increases for agencies such as the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the FBI that emerged as priorities after the terrorist attacks.
John Scofield, spokesman for the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Justice Department’s delay in dispensing grants was “prudent,” and that its effects would be only temporary. But he said it was a prime example of the adverse effects of Congress and the White House not reaching timely agreement on a budget.
“Punting the budget until January is not the best way to govern,” said Scofield. “There will be some real consequences, albeit temporary.”
Funding for the program last year was $651 million; Bush proposed increasing it to $3.5 billion. Congress is expected to follow suit with a big increase, but it has not yet finished work on the Justice Department’s appropriation. Under the stopgap spending bill, the department continued to make grants -- until this week.
Faced with uncertainty about the department’s final budget for the year, Daniels said in her memo that the agency would postpone implementation of new policies, including a restructuring of several juvenile justice programs, as well as the distribution of grants until after the full-year budget is set.
“We find ourselves in a holding pattern,” said Daniels. Another administration official explained that the department would have to duplicate the award applications process if they went ahead with interim funding levels and then received a big increase.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it doesn’t make sense [to award grants] until we see what Congress ultimately decides,” the administration official said.
David Sirota, spokesman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, argued that the administration’s response “shows a fundamental lack of a sense of urgency.”
It is particularly galling to Democrats because Bush has appeared at many rallies with emergency workers, lavishing praise on their efforts and promising to pour resources into the program.
But in August 2002, after Congress sent Bush a bill providing supplemental funding for a variety of homeland security programs, he refused to spend $150 million included for first-responder grants.