WE HAVE ARGUED in favor of President Bush's plan to create a Department of Homeland Security. We thought it was right to combine agencies with overlapping responsibilities into one department, right to get everyone monitoring border security working together, right to put one person in charge. Nowhere, however, did we argue that the creation of the Cabinet department should usurp so much presidential political capital and so much congressional energy that many other homeland security initiatives would fall by the wayside. Yet that, in effect, is what has happened.

Although they don't put it quite this way, former senators Warren B. Rudman and Gary Hart -- co-chairmen of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, which three years ago warned of the risk of terrorist attack -- have issued a report that demonstrates what happens when public attention drifts away from these issues. They claim that state and local law enforcement officers work in an intelligence vacuum and have no access to terrorist watch lists; that enormous resources are being spent at airports and relatively little on port and cargo security; that police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers still don't communicate well with one another or with their counterparts in neighboring cities; that public health systems are not prepared for biological or chemical attack; and that there has been no real national debate about the private facilities -- chemical plants, power plants, factories -- that remain vulnerable to attack.

True, many of these issues lie in the hands of local and municipal officials, some of whom have dealt with them admirably and some of whom have not dealt with them at all. Thanks both to federal funding and to a heightened sense of vulnerability, the Washington area has made more progress than most on improving communication between local and federal police forces, and on coordinating emergency services across state lines. On the other hand, the mayor of Boston -- who also is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- points out that few other cities have received anything like the same amount of federal attention and money, and are frustrated by the delays: His officials simply respond to a threat when called upon to do so, and then take resources away from other departments to pay for it.

At the federal level, there has also been some progress -- as well as much foot-dragging. The U.S. Customs Service has persuaded some of America's trading partners to conduct some inspections of goods before they arrive here. Should it be needed, enough smallpox vaccine is being readied to vaccinate every American. The administration has even called for equipment and training for firefighters and police -- although Congress failed to appropriate the money, as we have also pointed out in the past. While a vicious partisan war was fought over the homeland security bill, the debate over the security of private chemical plants got lost in the shuffle, too.

But while the explanations are multiple, the end result is what matters: Right now, when they are needed, the money and the programs aren't there. Nor is the necessary sense of urgency. Although Americans will never be able to afford or achieve perfect security, steps can be taken to reduce some of the risks of terrorist attack, or some of the attendant casualties, for relatively little money. The homeland security bill should be passed in the lame-duck congressional session, but even in its absence we can improve our preparedness -- not tomorrow, after the political grandstanding has finished, but today.