House pumps up homeland funding

The House Appropriations Committee on June 17 approved a fiscal 2004 Homeland Security Department budget that invests more money in developing new tools to fight bioterrorism and cyberwarfare.

The $29.4 billion budget, which is $1 billion more than President Bush requested, includes money to modernize computer systems that would keep track of foreign visitors and container cargos arriving at U.S. ports.

It also provides a major infusion dollars for first responders, who complained they had a job to do but no money to do it. In approving the legislation, appropriations committee chairman Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said the committee acknowledged the importance of state and local governments and the private sector in partnership with the federal government.

The budget bill, which now goes to the full House, includes $1.9 billion for grants to first responders, which is an $894 million increase from fiscal 2003. It earmarks $776 million for the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, which is a $590.9 million increase to deal with cyberterrorism and other infrastructure threats.

The bill provides more money for biodefense and research to develop new technologies to address terrorism. DHS' Science and Technology Directorate would get $900.4 million under the plan, an increase of $348.5 million over fiscal 2003.

The money also includes $9 billion for border protection. The U.S. Coast Guard, which is taking a higher profile in homeland security efforts, would receive $530 million for the agency's Deepwater project to modernize its fleet of cutters.

The Senate plans to begin work on its version of the money bill on June 24 and hopes to vote on it by mid-July, according to Bill Hoagland, budget director for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Hoagland, who spoke at a homeland security conference June 18 sponsored by BearingPoint Inc., said the Senate version would be similar to the House version with "maybe a little less but not much." He also said it is likely lawmakers would face added pressure to increase funding for hometown first responders.

Democrats are trying to increase the size of DHS' budget, too. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the panel's ranking Democrat, attempted to add more than $1 billion for security at ports, airports and borders, but his amendment was defeated. "This administration has been reluctant to provide resources for this agency," Obey said.

The legislation would jump-start several new programs, including Project Bioshield, which would receive $890 million for fiscal 2004 to encourage the commercial development and production of medical countermeasures against bioterrorism. It includes $60 million to study the feasibility of equipping passenger jets with anti-missile shields, which is a proposal that grew out of concerns that terrorists could target an aircraft with a shoulder-held weapon.

In addition, the committee agreed to freeze funding for a controversial program for screening airline passengers — Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System — until the General Accounting Office investigates the system.

Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.) described the program as "potentially the largest ever intrusion of the federal government into our personal lives. The privacy and due-process concerns are immense. It deserves far more scrutiny than has been paid so far."

Although more money will likely go to anti-terrorism projects, experts predicted that other programs could suffer as a result.

"It's tough to predict whether congressional priorities are those of the information technology community," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "If it is not mandatory — spending, terrorism, anti-terrorism or military-related — it's going to be tough going."

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