SOME WANT TO patrol every inch of America's shoreline with U.S. Coast Guard boats. Others prefer to throw up their hands and do nothing. Democrats have accused the president of woefully underfunding homeland security. The president has accused Congress of mishandling that funding. Between these extremes there must be a median line: a handful of projects that would meaningfully increase the safety of Americans within their borders, and a sum of money that could be spent on homeland security without breaking the bank or raising partisan hackles. Unfortunately no scientific formula exists to set that median line, so we are forced to rely on the warring parties to do so.

In part, the argument is about how, not whether, new funding for police and firefighters -- "first responders" -- should be provided: through existing programs or through new, terrorism-related programs administered by the Homeland Security Department. In essence, though, the dispute is about what criteria should be used to decide how these billions will be spent. It is clear, for example, that Washington, New York and Los Angeles need top-notch technology and a great deal of police training to prepare for a chemical weapons attack. It is less clear that, say, Omaha needs to achieve the same level of preparedness. But will the people of Nebraska necessarily agree? And will their representatives in Congress? Some members already are off to a poor start in this debate, larding at least some of the recent 2003 spending bill with programs earmarked for specific localities: Cowlitz County, Wash., and Adams County, Pa., will both be the lucky recipients of emergency preparedness money, for example.

In the long term, the Homeland Security Department hopes to act as a neutral broker, allocating money based on national priorities. But at the moment there is chaos. States and local governments have to deal with a bewildering array of agencies to get money for their programs. At the same time, those agencies are not equipped to determine who most needs the money. There simply isn't enough information to make a judgment. "It's an emerging field," says Peter G. LaPorte, director of the District's emergency management office, who can rattle off a list of a dozen different grants he intends to apply for.

We are, in other words, at an extremely dangerous moment. Officials at the Homeland Security Department promise that they will set up a "one-stop shop" in every state to help local leaders determine whom to ask for money. They also hope that the grant-making process itself will reveal where money is most needed and who is best able to spend it. Until then the entire process could easily be hijacked by politics. Some states will certainly apply for grants they don't need. Some elected officials will loudly cry that their firefighters have not received enough money, however much is allocated. Democrats will use this issue to tar the administration as stingy (and, as noted, have already done so). The president will use it to accuse Congress of irresponsibility (and he's done that already, too). What is needed, if the Department of Homeland Security is to achieve anything, is national, not local, patriotism, and a sense of proportion, not greed.