House OKs Homeland Security Funds
The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the first bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, providing almost $30 billion for programs as diverse as bioterrorism research and baggage screening.
House Republicans, whom the White House had accused in March of underfunding homeland security, took President Bush’s budget request and raised it by more than $1 billion for additional transportation security measures and funding for “first responders,” including police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
But Democrats contended that because of the administration’s tax cuts -- and resultant budget-tightening -- the funding still would not go far enough to ensure adequate protection of U.S. borders and citizens, although almost all of them voted for the bill anyway.
“I think it’s about time we demonstrate there are costs to the tax action that was just taken by this Congress,” said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
“All of us are deficit hawks,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) countered during a news conference. “But a balanced budget is not as important as fiscal responsibility.... This bill is a perfect example of how you can [maintain protection] and still hold the line.”
Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on homeland security, said: “I’m not interested in simply throwing money at a problem. We must spend our money smartly. We must identify our vulnerabilities and spend accordingly.”
All members of the California delegation voted in favor of the bill, which passed 425-2. The two opponents were Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ron Paul of Texas. Four Democrats and four Republicans did not vote, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who by tradition rarely votes.
This bill is the first of 13 annual appropriations measures, to fund the government’s activities for the 2004 fiscal year, to be considered by the House this summer. It marks the first time that money has been designated for the Department of Homeland Security, created only in January.
The department, proposed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, combined the functions of 22 agencies throughout the government -- from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service -- and has about 180,000 employees.
The Senate will consider its own version of the measure, although no schedule has been announced. Differences between the bills will be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee before the final legislation is sent to President Bush.
In a statement, Bush commended the House “for acting quickly to approve funds for our continued effort to strengthen homeland security and protect the American people.”
The House bill would provide the department with $29.4 billion for its operations and activities in the 2004 fiscal year -- an increase of more than $535 million, or 1.8%, above last year’s funding for the agencies that merged into the department.
It would include $9 billion for border protection; almost $5.2 billion for the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees baggage and passenger screening at airports; $4.4 billion for state and local emergency personnel; $890 million to combat various forms of bioterrorism, and $776 million for infrastructure protection.
Earlier this year, after Democrats accused Bush of shortchanging homeland security, the president shifted the blame to the GOP-controlled Congress and its tight pockets.
In a rare instance of intra-party cross-fire, the president said House members had “not only reduced the budget that we asked for, they earmarked a lot of the money” for other priorities.
The interchange reached a climax in March when House Appropriations Committee chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) sent a three-page letter to Bush, responding to his accusations with charges of inaccuracies regarding funding and insufficient communication.
“I believe White House statements that Congress only provided $1.3 billion for first responders are factually inaccurate because you have narrowly chosen programs that only you believe will support the first-responder community,” Young wrote. "... It would be helpful to have a periodic exchange of information on this issue and other issues of importance to our country, instead of one-way directives from the Office of Management and Budget.”
Tuesday, however, saw a change of tune.
“That was then, this is now,” said Young, adding: “While there are those that believe we should do more, that convinces me that this bill is on track because it doesn’t satisfy the big spenders or the little spenders.”
Like other House Democrats, Rep. Jose E. Serrano of New York said he approved the proposal in the hope that additional funding would follow.
“I supported this bill because it moves us ahead to where I think we should be, but there are shortcomings,” he said. “I don’t think that we have set out fully to fund all the programs we need to fund. We are not giving enough to high-threat sites such as Los Angeles, the airports and New York -- the site of the crime.
“I don’t think enough money has been singled out for those areas,” added Serrano, who represents the Bronx. “It’s no secret that if there are terrorist plots, they must target installations of one kind or another, or visible targets that attract worldwide attention. L.A. is right up there, and I think we need to be very careful.
“My theory is I’ll vote for the bill and be a player, hoping that I would make it better rather than being left on the outside.”