Washington area members of Congress yesterday questioned the Bush administration's commitment to keeping the capital safe and urged officials in the region to do a better job of explaining how they are spending tens of millions of dollars in preparedness aid.
In a series of pointed exchanges at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee, Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and his colleagues criticized the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for leaving the year-old, congressionally mandated post of national capital region coordinator vacant for five months before it was filled April 30.
Other panel members cited a new congressional study that concluded that regional authorities cannot say whether key vulnerabilities to terrorism remain because they have no system to measure the effect of as much as $340 million in federal anti-terror grants that have flowed to the Washington area.
"The time has come to ask difficult questions," Davis said, "so that we can determine the road ahead. . . . What have we done with the federal funding to date? How were funding decisions for the region made? How did we enhance preparedness? We need to move away from generalities . . . and talk specifics."
Davis turned to the new regional coordinator, Thomas J. Lockwood, and asked him whether Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had given him enough clout to do the job. "The fact that they left the opening so long leaves us in doubt of the commitment of the administration," said Davis, who had asked for the study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
"We did lose a lot of time," added Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Lockwood, a former Maryland homeland security official, replied: "Do I have visibility in the organization? Absolutely. Secretary Ridge is committed to this position."
Lockwood said that regional coordination was improving and that most of the federal grant money studied by the GAO was awarded before the Department of Homeland Security was created in March 2003.
Top administrators from the District and 16 Virginia and Maryland cities and counties will meet July 7 to set joint spending priorities and discuss security policies, he said. He also said state and District leaders published a regional document in February to guide spending of federal homeland security grants, including $30 million this year.
"We've been working with unprecedented levels of coordination," Lockwood said. "The region will be working over the next several months to develop a comprehensive plan." For example, he said an inter-agency federal committee is developing standard responses for emergencies and better procedures for providing credentials to people at disaster sites and for sharing information and intelligence.
Still, several committee members pointed out problems. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) complained of a lack of transparency in homeland security spending by state and local governments.
Moran said he was waiting for a response after writing to Ridge on Sept. 11, 2003, to suggest regional performance benchmarks for police, fire and other first responders. He also asked Ridge to work with local officials to ban shipments by train of hazardous materials through Alexandria, Arlington and downtown Washington during high alerts and public gatherings.
"We have yet to receive any response to this letter or to that proposal," Moran said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) expressed concern that federal grants were not reaching local officials promptly. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said more should be done to force the region's jurisdictions to set aside parochial interests, citing Metro, the transit agency, as an example of regional cooperation.
State and local officials involved with homeland security said they will consider sending monthly financial reports to Davis's committee and presenting a detailed spending summary in the fall.