National security must be a priority at budget time

Over the coming months, Congress will continue to debate President Bush’s record $3.1 trillion budget request. Although the Democrats and Republicans do not see eye to eye on many issues, they are in total agreement that national security should receive the highest budgetary priority.

Regardless of the rhetoric that this spending makes America safer, the proposed budget continues the trend of placing inordinate emphasis on offensive military strength at the expense of homeland security. It is as if the United States plays the A-team for pre-emptive wars abroad, and then fields a poorly equipped junior-varsity squad to defend the homeland. What might be worse, Congress is now adding billions more in earmarks that further distort the nation’s spending.

The $515 billion the president proposes for traditional defense spending is the largest it has been since World War II in inflation-adjusted terms, an increase of over 74 percent since Bush’s first year in the White House. And that’s without emergency supplemental funding requests that will total at least $160 billion to cover the tabs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the budget of the second-largest Cabinet agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, where war costs are also directly felt. In total, the United States will spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars next year to support what is essentially offensive firepower.

This all comes at the expense of providing for first lines of defense, such as installing bomb-detection equipment in ports and along roadways, shoring up collapsing infrastructure or better equipping first-responders in cities that are most at risk from terrorist activity. Spending $148 million for every F-22 Raptor fighter might not be the best bang for the buck to protect the United States against a conventional explosive, which Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, referred to in recent congressional testimony as “the most probable al Qaeda attack scenario.”

America’s national-security priorities are warped when the combined proposed annual budgets of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Border Patrol, the Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are equivalent to less than 2 percent of the total cost of the war in Iraq, or the price tag of two new proposed aircraft carriers, when the United States already claims an uncontested dominance on the world’s oceans. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, traditional military spending should not be America’s only defensive strategy.

Many taxpayers may be surprised that the president would fund homeland security at only $51 billion, or about 7 percent of the total amount spent on force projection abroad. For example, the president allocates the U.S. Coast Guard — a key agency in the fledgling new Department of Homeland Security responsible for protecting America’s 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline with a force so small that it could easily sit inside most football stadiums –only $9 billion, or the equivalent of less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall defense budget.

America needs better balance in its budgetary priorities. The traditional defense agencies that are breaking under the strains of war deserve to be supported, but not at the expense of guarding the homeland. America is ill-prepared to prevent, much less recover from, future catastrophic events such as another terrorist attack or infrastructure failure, whether the result of negligence in upkeep or by a devastating storm wrought by a Mother Nature made angry by global warming.

In the budgetary bonanza that is just beginning between the president and a Congress whose members are once again rushing to the pork barrel, we can only hope saner heads prevail. What America needs more than an increase in defense spending is a top-to-bottom reassessment of budgetary priorities and a better definition of what constitutes security. Identifying and supporting programs that contribute to a more secure homeland is a good first step.

(Scott G. Borgerson, a former Coast Guard officer, is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. David S. Abraham, formerly an official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, now assesses risk for a global investment bank.)