The "New" Homeland Security Math

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Bob Laura / USGC / Getty

Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Poklemba from Coast Guard Station New York inspects the Staten Island Ferry as it departs New York City.

Over the summer, Congress passed and the President signed a new homeland-security law called "Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act." Finally, homeland security has been rationalized, we were told. The new law would fix the way money gets distributed so that the states at a greater risk of terrorism received a larger proportion of money, just as the 9/11 Commission had wisely recommended. After the bill was passed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bragged that a Democratic Congress had done what the Republicans could not.

But the Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a report released last Friday and obtained by TIME, has concluded that the new formula does not live up to its billing. A close look at the math shows that rural, less-populated states like Alaska and Wyoming may still end up with a disproportionate share of the total money.

How could this happen? It all comes down to the magic of fractions. Under the old formula, every state was guaranteed at least .75% of the state-grant program — a very high minimum compared to other federal programs, which made sure that even less populous states with a relatively small risk of terrorism received a sizable chunk of cash. Since 9/11, billions of dollars in homeland-security grants have gone out under this bizarre and nonsensical formula, which TIME investigated in-depth in 2004. In the new law, however, Congress cut the minimum to .375%, and set the percentage to decline a little bit more each additional year.

Cutting the minimum in half, from .75% to .375%, sounds like real progress, right? But it turns out that, while the new formula reduces the percentage, it starts with a much bigger pool. The minimum percentage, as written into the law, is now a percentage of state grants plus something called the Urban-Area Security Initiative, a separate program dedicated to high-risk cities. That program accounted for $747 million in 2007. So the impact of the lower percentage is undercut by the use of a much bigger denominator, notes the report, authored by CRS employees Shawn Reese and Steven Maguire. (CRS is Congress's nonpartisan think tank, and its reports are not generally made public.)

If you compare apples to apples, which is not easy to do in the Byzantine world of grant funding, then here is what you get, according to TIME's calculations: In 2007, 18 small and largely rural states received the minimum funding, each getting about .4% of the total pot. Under the new formula, those states will take home nearly as much — about .375% of the total. That number will decrease slightly each year, bottoming out at .35% in 2012. Yet that means Wyoming, with only .17% of the nation's population, will still qualify for at least twice that share of the cash. In fact, if Congress appropriates the funds that have been authorized, states like Alaska and Wyoming could actually stand to receive more money in absolute terms than they did in 2007.

So the grand accomplishment of this law? By 2012, rural states may get .05% less of the total than they did before. That's something, but a relatively small accomplishment for a bill that was so hard fought in Congress and was billed as a major achievement. "You are correct that it is not as stark as it might have looked," concedes a Senate aide. "But this bill does lower the minimum. It does go down." Notes the aide: "We've had bills in a couple of Congresses now to try to change the formula. The fact that it's taken us since 2004 to come to an agreement suggests how charged it is."

The truth is, if homeland security money were truly distributed based on risk, there would be no guaranteed minimum at all. Guaranteed minimums are useful only for getting states up to speed — or for pork-barrel indulgences. At this point, all states have received enough money to set up a basic emergency infrastructure. So the rational thing to do would be to focus our limited resources on high-density, high-risk locations. But Congress is not rational. The Senate gives disproportionate power to small states, and those states do not want to lose their homeland-security entitlements. So the result is a new, not-so-improved formula: one small step for homeland security, one giant leap for politicians.