Homeland security decisions have raised some very divisive issues -- from civil liberties to the U.S. treatment of immigrants. But the fur really begins to fly when Congress considers questions such as this: Why would the fire department in tiny Plankinton, S.D., population 567, need $52,688 in homeland security money for new fire equipment?
This week two congressional committees, one in the Senate and one in the House, will resume debate, and possibly close in on a settlement over how to divide homeland security money among states and communities. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, legislators from rural and sparsely populated areas have succeeded in arguing that their states should be guaranteed some portion of the money.
But elected officials from states such as New York, as well as the Bush administration, have long argued that funds should be apportioned according to the terrorism risk.
As it stands, Wyoming, which is not on anybody's short list of ground-zero targets, receives $37.74 per resident, and South Dakota gets $26.32 per capita.
Meanwhile, New York gets $5.41, and California -- another high-threat state, with targets such as Los Angeles International Airport and the Golden Gate Bridge -- receives $4.97.
This situation exists because of a provision inserted into every congressional homeland security bill since Sept. 11 that guarantees every state at least three-quarters of a percentage point of the funds from several of the largest homeland security grant programs.
How else to explain that the city of Grand Forks, N.D., received $200,000 in homeland security money for a bomb-dismantling robot, or, as reported on CBS's "60 Minutes," that Mason County, Wash., came to spend $63,000 for a decontamination unit nobody has been trained to use?
The commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks strongly recommended against continuing the guaranteed-minimum allotments to states, which it called "pork barrel" politics.
"In a free-for-all over money," the panel said, "it is understandable that representatives will work to protect the interests of their home states or districts. But this issue is too important for politics as usual to prevail. Resources must be allocated according to vulnerabilities."
Many homeland security experts have agreed with that sentiment for years.
"We need to put the nation's interests ahead of any parochial interests," said Daniel J. Kaniewski, deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. "Parochial interests are what we're seeing this week as the Congress takes up this debate."
The defenders of the guaranteed minimums include Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Today Collins, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will introduce a bill to lower the minimum from 0.75 percent for each state to 0.55 percent -- but also to put more homeland security programs into the mix, so states such as hers likely would not see a funding cut.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is sponsoring a measure to eliminate the minimums entirely, and he is brandishing an April 4 letter from Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the Sept. 11 panel, endorsing his bill and saying "it is critical that Congress eradicate the unwise system" of state minimums.
Former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge has pushed that idea for more than two years, and his successor, Michael Chertoff, has promoted the same principle.
But congressional observers say it is all but inevitable that the ultimate compromise on the issue will result in a guaranteed minimum of about 0.25 percent. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is endorsing that solution in a bill to be introduced later this week.
And President Bush, in a little-noticed provision in the proposed budget for fiscal 2006, calls for that same 0.25 percent solution -- a recognition, administration officials say, of what is achievable given lawmakers' emotions on the issue.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.