In separate attacks yesterday, two prominent congressional Democrats criticized the White House for failing to put enough money into homeland security.
Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), a possible presidential candidate in 2004, said blind conservative "ideology" is driving the Bush administration to pursue tax cuts for wealthy Americans while vetoing "billions of dollars for domestic defense."
"How this administration can prefer tax cuts for the most fortunate 1 percent of Americans over domestic defense for 100 percent of Americans is beyond me, but they do," Edwards said during a speech at the Brookings Institution.
His accusations came after similar criticisms by Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Obey, speaking at the National Press Club, said White House aides have sought to portray the administration as championing homeland security needs while Congress is dragging its feet. "In fact, with respect to the resources being provided to defend the home front from terrorism, the reality is very different," he said. He noted that in crucial funding debates the White House has been "less than willing to pull out all the stops to pay for homeland defense."
The Edwards complaint was part of a larger speech laying out his highly skeptical view of the new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Although supporting President Bush in his effort to disarm Iraq, Edwards savaged the administration's effort to fight terror at home.
"It is time for all of us, without regard for party, to say what everyone knows," he said. "Washington is not doing enough to make America safe. If the administration continues to do too little, it will be too late again."
Edwards, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called for a domestic intelligence agency distinct from the FBI. He proposed an urgent effort to create computer databases to share information on suspected terrorists with local law enforcement agencies. He pointed to America's chemical plants, skyscrapers, seaports, railroads and water supplies as possible terrorist targets that are scarcely safer today than before Sept. 11, 2001.
National Guard rules should be changed to encourage residents over 35 to contribute their expertise to homeland defense, Edwards said. And new graduates with skills in fields such as public health and computers could be drawn into the war on terror by offering free college tuition in exchange for five years of public service, he added.
Few of these issues will be adequately addressed by building a new bureaucracy, he said -- training fire not only at Bush but also at a potential challenger for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.). Lieberman helped draw the blueprint for the new department. "The homeland security bill is a perfect example of how long it takes Washington to come up with an answer that doesn't even solve the problem," Edwards said.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security, said the administration had made substantial progress in addressing threats and in marshalling money to fight terrorism. As for the call for a new domestic security agency, he said the White House was focused on building the homeland department and reshaping the FBI to better counter terrorism.
Obey said the administration has been especially delinquent in providing money for first responders and port security. White House pressure to hold down federal spending has limited to $500 million the amount that has gone to help first responders with training and equipment upgrades, he said. "[W]e are nearly as unprepared today as we were a year ago," he said. "Very few state or municipal fire and law enforcement agencies have even a fraction of what they need to effectively respond."
Obey also said that Bush had requested no money to help the nation's ports assess their vulnerabilities. And White House objections limited congressional efforts to provide such funds to $93 million last fiscal year, far less than the $800 million local officials say they need, he said.
Johndroe said Bush has requested $3.5 billion for first responders in fiscal 2003. Bush also wants to increase the Customs Service's budget to $2.3 billion, up from $1.7 billion. The problem is that Congress hasn't passed most of the annual spending bills, Johndroe said. "We're just hopeful that Congress will get this money to the states and cities quickly when they return in January," he said.