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Improving America's Security Act of 2007--Continued

Location: Washington, DC

IMPROVING AMERICA'S SECURITY ACT OF 2007--Continued -- (Senate - March 06, 2007)


Mr. COBURN. One of the first things we found out after 9/11 was a lot of our emergency workers could not talk to each other. That was one of the most glaring, obvious defects in our response to emergencies--that emergency personnel had difficulty, from one group to another, talking to one another. As a matter of fact, it limited their ability to save lives.

From the beginning of the 9/11 Commission and from the start, in 2002, that has been addressed in multiple ways. The purpose of this amendment is to describe what is obviously something that is not good for us as a nation.

We presently have occurring with the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 an electromagnetic spectrum which was sold off and $1 billion reserved under a program called the Public Safety Interoperability Public Service Grant Program. That $1 billion was carved off and that is where we are going to spend it. I don't disagree with that at all.

What this bill has is another $3.4 billion for interoperable grants addressing the same problem in a different way than what the other grant program was. One of our problems as a nation is we have too many programs that are doing the same thing. They duplicate one another. One is better and the other is not. Yet we continue sending money down both holes, not making adjustments as to which gives us the best value for our money.

What has happened with this money from the Commerce Department, through a memorandum of understanding, is the administration of this grant program has been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security with a little fiat that the Department of Commerce kept $12 million for themselves.

This memorandum of understanding was dated just a few weeks ago, February 16, and what it did is it gave the administration near complete administrative control of this grant program, the one from Commerce, the one from 2005, to the Department of Homeland Security. This grant program has yet, to date, to receive any applications for any grants to be administered under the program. This is 2005; 2006 we did this. Now we are into March of 2007, and we have not received the first application.

S. 4, being considered on the Senate floor now, as I said, creates yet another interoperable grant program, the Emergency Communications and Interoperability Grant Program. This program is also going to be administered by the Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of this grant program is to make grants to States for purchasing interoperable equipment and training personnel, testing on how and when to use it--similar to the PSIC grant which was mainly for equipment. This program authorizes $3.3 billion to be authorized in grants over the first 5 years of the program and indefinite amounts, ``such sums as are necessary,' after that.

A question comes to mind: How much money would it take for every first responder in this country to have interoperable communications? We don't address that in this bill. We just keep sending the money for it, after we send the first $3.3 billion and then whatever it takes after that, rather than looking and reassessing what our need is.

If S. 4 passes in its current form, Congress will have authorized the creation of two nearly identical interoperability grant programs. Again, interoperability is this concept that first responders can talk to one another: if there is a fire going on in Tulsa, and there is a need that Oklahoma City firefighters will be there, that they can talk to them; that if there is something going on in Arkansas and Oklahoma first responders need to be there, there is the ability for them to talk to one another over their communications gear.

One of these grant programs is housed at Commerce but run by DHS. The other is going to be housed at DHS. The differences between these two programs in their details are minimal. Both provide for funding of equipment, both provide for funding for training, and both will exist side by side until 2010, when PSIC expires.

The purpose of this amendment would be to combine the two duplicative grant programs for interoperability. It does it by repealing the PSIC Grant Program at Commerce and it redirects the funding set aside for the PSIC Grant Program at Commerce to funding the Emergency Communications and Interoperability Grant Program at DHS. This will not decrease the amount of money. We are going to still spend $4.3 billion. But we are going to do it through one grant program rather than two.

There are not going to be two sets of signals out there for the States that want to go after this money or the communities that need to go after this money. There is going to be one.

There are a couple of technical changes with this that are required, which is repealing the Call Home Act of 2006, which sets a deadline of September 30, 2007. We haven't had the first grant application right now, so that gives us less than 6 months to get grants in and advised and granted on the PSIC Grant Program.

Finally, I think a very important part of this amendment requires that DHS study and report to Congress on the feasibility of engaging the private sector in developing a national interoperable emergency communications network. Neither of these grant programs address the national focus that would be needed. One of the problems in Katrina was all the people who went down there, the 9/11 responders and emergency responders, couldn't communicate with the emergency responders in Louisiana.

What this says is, aren't there some brains out there in the private sector who could tell us what we need to do and then we could have our grant programs actually go to buy the equipment, the training, so the program is already figured out so we don't have duplication so the people in Oklahoma can talk to the people in Kansas and Nebraska and in New York--all across the country. There is no national security reason why we need two interoperable communication grant programs for the States.

The second point: The administration--this is another area of this bill that they strongly oppose, setting up two identical or very similar grant programs.

No. 3, the Department of Commerce has essentially contracted this grant program out to DHS. It rightfully should be.

No. 4, the 9/11 economic report explicitly stated that Congress should not use grant programs as porkbarrel. If we have two grant programs running side by side and one isn't talking to another and a State has gotten one and they don't know the State is applying for the same thing at the other, how much stewardship have we practiced with the American taxpayers' money? We have not.

One of the prime recommendations of the 9/11 Commission was to reorganize the grant programs to eliminate confusion. That is exactly what this amendment does. It reorganizes the grant programs into one grant program, one place where you go to get it, one source of planning, one source of administration for it.

I will not go into the reasons why we have two programs, but needless to say it is because Members of Congress are not talking to each other. We have two interoperability grant programs that are not interoperable because we have a Congress that is not interoperable in communications with one another in terms of committee to committee or Member to Member.

The Department of Homeland Security has been cleared as the lead Federal agency for interoperability emergency communications. That is where these grants ought to be. That is who we are going to hold accountable. By not having them both in the same department, then we are not going to be able to hold them accountable when we do oversight.

The other thing is the average American cannot afford to purchase two of anything. Many times with these two programs, we are going to see the same thing paid for twice because the right hand is not going to know what the left hand is doing. There is no good policy reason for the Federal Government to have these two programs.

The other thing I think is fairly easy to recognize is if you have two grant programs, it is hard for the American public to realize how much money we are spending on the grant programs because you have got to find one and then the other. The total, which is going to be $4.3 billion, is not recognized now.

The final reason is our first responder organizations write grants. They are already required, in terms of all of the things we have done in terms of emergency preparedness, to provide multiple proposals annually right now to get Federal funding. Why would we not want them to have one application for interoperability? It is a waste of their time and the State's time.

The arguments you are going to hear tomorrow--we are going to debate this amendment again tomorrow afternoon with my colleagues from Hawaii and Alaska. They are going to say the PSIC Grant Program is only authorized until 2010, so after that there would not be a problem anymore for two grant programs. That is not a good reason to have two grant programs.

The public safety interoperability program requires the department to coordinate its efforts with the Secretary of Homeland Security. Yes, they did. They signed a memorandum of understanding that says they are going to run it all.

Finally, the Commerce Department has the authority and expertise over emergency communication grant programs. Although the PSIC Program was placed in Commerce, all of the operational authority for that grant program was essentially transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security essentially treats the PSIC as part of its own budget, showing that Commerce has no real role in administering this program.

Another argument would be the programs are not identical but focus on different aspects of communications interoperability; it would hurt the emergency response community to get rid of either one of the programs.

Well, the one that is in this bill does it all. The one that is in the Commerce bill that we have already allocated $1 billion for is mainly about equipment, it is not as much about training.

We ought to know, if we are going to spend $4.3 billion that emergency responders anywhere ought to be able to talk to one another. We do not know that with this money. There is no string on this money that says that is the end goal. That is why a study coming out of the Department of Homeland Security that says go look at the outside and ask the private sector to tell us how do we take this spectrum that has been set aside, two different sections of spectrum for this, and how do we create a plan so that throughout the whole country, no matter what the need is, one group of emergency responders can talk to another?

That is what we ought to be getting for our $4.3 billion. That is not in either one of those programs. So what we are going to do is we are going to spend $4.3 billion on these grant programs, with no assurances that we are going to accomplish the very thing we seek to accomplish.

I believe there could not be a more wasteful attempt at our spending when we do not know what we are going to do for an endpoint on the spending.

A few comments about the overall bill. There has to come a point in time in this country where we recognize that we do not have enough money to do everything we need to do to protect us. That is true today. Where we ought to be putting our money is where we think the highest risks are. I agree with the Presiding Officer. Areas such as New Jersey are at much greater risk and ought to get much greater funding. They have a greater risk and a greater need.

Does that mean I am pleased if that means soft targets in Oklahoma are going to be exposed? No, but there has to be a dispensing of the money based on what the most likely risks are. So when we finish all of this, we will have gotten what we wanted.

Earlier today, I offered an amendment to sunset this bill in 5 years. We will look at it again and see what have we accomplished. What is left to accomplish? Where is the greatest area of risk? What do we still need to do? We have not done that in this bill. That is how we are going to make good policy--making sure that the dollars we spend to protect America are spent on the areas that will get us the most in this bill that we are debating today. We refuse to do that. It authorizes this bill to continue forever.

There is no sunset to it. There is no stop to say that we need to relook at this. There is nothing for the Congress to come back and look at as we did in the PATRIOT Act, where we required that we had to come back and look at it. We sunsetted it. And even though we passed the PATRIOT Act last year, we took sections of it that we said we know we are going to want to look at again, so we sunsetted it.

If we are going to be good stewards with the American taxpayer's money, we ought to sunset this bill. We ought to sunset these two interoperability programs so that we know whether we have accomplished what we desire and know what the problems are so that we can predict them. By not sunsetting, by not combining the programs, by not efficiently spending and wisely planning the spending of the American taxpayer dollars is getting us on down the road where we do not want to be, which is more and more of what we are spending today being paid for more and more by our grandchildren and children of tomorrow.

I thank you for the time. I look forward to debating this bill tomorrow with Senator Stevens and Senator Inouye. My hope is that Senator McCain, who is a member of the Commerce Committee, will be here to aid in this. There is no reason for us to have two programs making States apply for two different grant programs that essentially do the same thing.

We would not do that ourselves in our homes. We would not set up two parallel requirements to accomplish the same goal. We should not be doing it in this bill.

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