The vast amounts of money being spent on homeland security contain some disturbing parallels to the 1950s, when the threat of Communism led to overspending on weapons.
Even President Eisenhower, a decorated military general, cautioned against the dangers of the growing military- industrial complex. But the politics of McCarthyism and the red scare fueled enormous budget outlays on defense. Could something similar be happening on the home front, as President Bush proposes a $40.2 billion homeland security budget, or a 10 percent increase for fiscal year 2005 over 2004?
For cities and states facing today's budget crunches, all that money must look incredibly tempting. But that's no excuse for the examples that already abound in Washington, D.C. - and in states - cleverly using homeland security dollars to help offset budget deficits or pad unrelated programs.
For example, Maryland cut state spending for local healthcare outreach centers and then substituted federal homeland security funds for state funds, according to testimony at a recent homeland security hearing on Capitol Hill.
Big cities considered to be terrorist targets, like Washington, especially, will have to demonstrate that they can use such monies wisely. But in the same Congressional hearing, Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma, suggested they're not: He talked about the city using homeland security funds to pay for leather jackets for D.C. police, and $100,000 for a district summer jobs program - hardly defensible ingredients in the recipe for improved security.
"We've got an obligation, as do you," said Mr. Nickles to Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, "to make certain that things don't just sail through because a label has been put on them - that they really strengthen our homeland security."
He's absolutely right.
With such large sums being funneled to the nation's second-largest federal department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to set clear priorities and to continuously and rigorously debate programs currently receiving money.
But according to the Democratic office of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, the DHS "has still not completed a comprehensive threat and vulnerability assessment to set priorities and guide our strategy."
The department is, after all, new and still feeling its way.
But with a full budget cycle now under its belt, Congress must work to ensure homeland security money is used properly.