Homeland Security Budget Triples?

In both of the first two debates, Kerry charged that “95 percent of our containers coming into this country are not inspected today. When you get on an airplane, your bag is X- rayed, but the cargo hold isn’t X-rayed. Do you feel safer?” Both times, Bush responded “we’ve tripled the homeland security budget from $10 billion to $30 billion.”

By way of comparison, while Bush claims to be spending an additional $20 billion a year on homeland security, the military costs of occupying Iraq amount to about $40 billion a year. So the amount Bush says we’re spending on homeland security is fairly modest.

But are we really spending an extra $20 billion a year? I doubt it. In the table below, I present the CBO’s budget figures for homeland security. They’re not quite the same as the figures that Bush is quoting (table S-2, in case you’re interested), but they actually show a bigger increase: $24 billion.

One questionable line item is “TSA and air marshalls.” This figure was basically zero before 9/11, since the TSA didn’t exist. The $1.6 billion in the table was allocated after 9/11. But we weren’t spending zero on airline security before 9/11. Even back in the 20th century, we had metal detectors, security personal, and so on. It just didn’t show up on the federal budget. (I assume it was paid for by the local authorities operating the airports). So the increase of $4.3 billion in the table below (and probably $5.7 billion in the figures Bush like to quote) exaggerate the additional spending on airport security, since they ignore the amounts we were spending before 9/11.

Even more egregious is the claimed increase from zero to $3.6 billion in “state and local grant programs” for police and firefighters. Although there was no such thing as a grant for homeland security in 2001, there were plenty of grants to state and local police. What’s happened is that a lot of this money has been redirected to homeland security. Overall, federal grants to state and local police and firefighters have increased from $9.2 to $10.2 billion.* Since these figures aren’t adjusted for inflation or population growth, this isn’t much of an increase.

The figure I prefer (total grants to state and local police) include lots of money ostensibly targeted to functions remote from homeland security, such as anti-drug money. But money is fungible. Cutting a billion from general funding for police, while simultaneously adding a billion for homeland security grants, isn’t likely to do much to make us safer. At best, it will redirect local funding towards homeland security, making us safer from terrorists, but less safe from everyday criminals. More likely, local authorities simple relabel some activities they were already engaged in (such as disaster response) as “homeland security” programs in order to qualify for federal grants, without making much change at all.

So nothing really changes, except for money getting moved from one budget-line to another, but Bush gets to claim in the debate that “we spent $3.1 billion for fire and police, $3.1 billion.”

*. I’ve calculated this by adding grants to state and local governments for “homeland security” and “administration of justice” grants from the Justice Department. See table 12-3 of the FY 2003 budget historical tables (very big pdf).

Funding for Homeland Security, by Agency (excluding Defense)
(Budget authority in billions of dollars)

2001 2005
c ---- ------
Department of Homeland Security
Border and immigration enforcement 5.5 8.7
TSA and air marshalls 1.6 5.7
State and local grant programs 0.0 3.6
Coast Guard 2.5 3.3
Other 1.0 5.9
Subtotal 10.7 27.1

Department of Health and Human Services 0.3 4.3
Department of Justice 1.0 2.6
Other Agencies 3.3 5.3

Total 15.3 39.3

Source: Adapted from CBO, table 2.