Homeland Security: Reading the Fine Print

When the proposed White House Budget for 2017 was released a few days ago, it was immediately scorned by the Republican leadership for its massive $4.15 trillion tax-and-spend formula that would increase federal spending by almost five percent.

Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, called President Obama’s farewell wish-list a “manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans.”

The White House stressed that the budget envisions a scaling down of the national debt by $2.9 trillion over 10 years via smaller tax breaks for wealthy earners, new savings in Medicare healthcare, and assumptions that immigration reform and other measures will spur economic growth.

(The claim is disputed. John McLaughlin said that budget “is not small” and would add $62 billion to the deficit, an assessment based on the White House’s own numbers.)

The Republican majority is already set to go at the document with big scissors, and Washington analysts are predicting that the budget will be much changed by the time it reaches final form. It’s even been described as more a political statement of what the president stands for, than a realistic framework for financing the federal government.

But, like every federal budget, it’s a very complex affair. Even the most partisan members of the opposition are finding some things to like in it. For example, bipartisan support can be anticipated for more funding for cancer research, and anti-poverty measures such as expansion of the earned income tax credit (EITC), which helps low-income taxpayers.

They will also likely welcome the more than $11 billion for the Departments of Defense and State to fight Islamic State and stabilize Syria. But that figure is somewhat misleading, since the overall proposed budget for Homeland Security in 2017 comes to slightly less than the $41.2 billion requested last year.

Furthermore, at the same time that the White House was highlighting such homeland crowd-pleasers as greater funding for cyber defense and safeguarding the nation’s ports, it was also (as somebody who actually read the 2,300-page monstrosity noted) saying nothing about the shrinkage in a relatively obscure item known as the Urban Area Security Initiative.

The UASI helps cities across the country to prevent terror attacks or respond to and recover from them. The proposed budget would reduce funding from $600 million to $330 million.

“These proposed cuts are ill-advised and ill-timed and they must be reversed. End of story,” New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in response. “In light of recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the vow by our extremist enemies to launch more attacks on our shores, it makes no sense to propose cuts to vital terror-prevention programs like UASI.”

New York needs the money. After the attacks on Paris last November, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said that he believes New York is “the most likely target” for another ISIS massacre. The city is a symbol of “all that they hate,” Bratton said, “so we are the most likely target” for the next attack. He added 500 cops to New York’s counterterrorism force and sent a delegation to Paris to consult with officials there.

At a time when counterterrorism measures are being stepped up, a reduction in UASI allocations hurt all the more. It’s used for the NYPD’s counterterrorism training programs, the active-shooter training course patrols at local airports, transit hubs and waterways, and more.

The Obama administration needs to either explain the logic behind the decision, or agree that the funds should be restored.

Europe, despite its economic problems, has been investing heavily in security since the Paris disaster. France, of course, has led the response, as President Francois Hollande declared that “France is at war.”

France has swept aside EU budget restrictions to finance that war. Previously planned defense cuts were set aside to pay for the campaign to “eradicate” ISIS, the hiring of some 17,000 people to beef up the security apparatus and the Interior Ministry.

Belgium announced 18 new measures to fight terrorism, and that an extra 400 million euros would be added to the budget to cover them. Britain and Spain, which have been struggling against radical Islamic threats for years, had already bolstered their security.

So it seems peculiar that — while others in the West, with less resources than the United States, are taking on the costly challenge of revamping their counterterrorism capabilities — the White House wants to save money.

What sense does it make to commit additional billions of dollars to fighting terrorists in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan while shortchanging security at home?

True, we should join with France in eradicating ISIS, and true, securing the cyber sphere is vital; but securing New York and other cities on the ground is just as vital.