A Note from the Publisher  The “OpEd” article below, by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), is the first in a planned  series of commentaries by leaders of both major political  parties and other officials who have been asked to give DPJ readers the benefit of their personal views on the current state of the U.S. homeland-preparedness program, along with recommendations on how to make the nation safer, more secure, and better protected. On behalf of our readers and the DPJ staff, I thank Majority Leader Hoyer for his willingness to serve as the first of our guest commentators.

Martin (Marty) Masiuk

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Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives

As I listened to the President’s State of the Union address last month, I could not help but notice that something was different this time around.  In all the talk about the threats we face as a country and the “decisive ideological struggle” that holds “the security of our nation in the balance,” not once did the President utter the words policeman, firefighter, or first responder.

He made no mention of enhanced security at our airports or harbors.  He did not talk about giving our civilian protectors the tools they need to keep us, and themselves, safe.  And he did not cite a single specific homeland security initiative that will protect the American people in case of another attack.

On September 11, 2001, we all witnessed humanity at its worst and most destructive, but we also saw human beings at their best and most courageous.

We saw extraordinary men and women rush headlong into smoke-filled stairwells and hallways engulfed in flames to save people whom they had never met.  We saw police and firefighters make the ultimate sacrifice so that others could live on.  And we saw thousands of survivors stream out of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who might not be with us today if not for the valor and selflessness of our first responders.

In the years since that fateful day, the men and women who have answered the call to help keep this country safe – police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and transit security personnel – have been working around the clock to ensure that we never have to confront this type of tragedy again.

But today, five-and-a-half years later, I fear that our government is now starting to neglect this important mission and what former National Security Advisor Richard Clarke has often referred to as our “forgotten homeland.”  In an environment that is almost entirely focused on prosecuting the War on Terror abroad, it seems that we are overlooking our first line of defense.

In his homeland security budget submission to Congress last year, President Bush called for cuts that were irresponsible at best and downright dangerous at worst.

Included in the President’s proposal were 40 percent reductions in homeland security funding for New York City and Washington, D.C., a decrease in nationwide first responder funding from $3.4 billion to $2.7 In my judgment, it is time for the federal government to start taking more responsibility, not less, for protecting the American people within our own borders.  billion, and the elimination of the Metropolitan Medical Response System, which provided vital medical supplies to our first responders. Why?

Attacks in Bali, Madrid, and London have proven that Al-Qaeda is still allocating resources to support terrorist operations outside of Iraq and Afghanistan – it took only 19 hijackers to kill nearly 3,000 innocent people on September 11.

In December of 2005, the 9/11 Commission gave the federal government an “F” in providing a risk-based allocation of homeland security funding, an “F” in ensuring communications interoperability for first responders, and a “D” in the screening of checked baggage and air cargo on passenger aircraft.

Furthermore, former Republican governor of New Jersey and 9/11 Commission Co-Chair Thomas H. Kean observed, just a couple of months ago, that “we’re not protecting our own people in this country – the government is not doing its job.”

In my judgment, it is time for the federal government to start taking more responsibility, not less, for protecting the American people within our own borders.  After all, homeland security begins at home.

When the 110th Congress convened last month, with a new Democratic Majority in place, the House of Representatives made the implementation of measures that will enhance our national security efforts our top priority.

And, as the first component of our “100 Hours Agenda,” House Democrats introduced the aptly named “House Resolution One – Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007.”  This legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support – and for good reasons.

First, this legislation seeks to significantly increase the share of state homeland security grants that are provided on the basis of risk, meaning that federal dollars will go where they are needed most to help first responders protect American families.

Second, this legislation, if signed into law, will create a stand-alone grant program for interoperable communications for our first responders.  This measure will ensure that police, firefighters, and other government officials from different jurisdictions and agencies will be able to communicate quickly and effectively in emergency situations.  There is no telling how many lives could have been saved if interoperable communications systems had been in place on September 11.

Third, this legislation will phase in a 100 percent inspection requirement of air cargo over the next three years and a 100 percent scanning requirement of U.S.-bound shipping containers over the next five years.

And fourth, this legislation will accelerate the installation of explosive detection systems for checked baggage on commercial airliners.

These measures are not going to entirely eliminate the threat we face, but they are critical steps toward greater security that signal this Congress’s commitment to moving forward on vital initiatives that should have been in place long ago.

In the coming months, Congress will be carefully examining the President’s homeland security budget for fiscal year 2008 and vigorously guarding against the reckless cuts our first responders were forced to endure last year.

We will be examining innovative ways to improve rail and transit security throughout the United States.

And, as Co-Chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, I will continue to be a strong advocate for full funding of the Fire and SAFER grant programs, which ensure that our nation’s firefighters have every available resource at their disposal to provide for their own safety and that of our communities.

The new Democratic Majority in Congress recognizes that our highest duty is to protect the American people, defend our homeland, and strengthen our national security. In order to fulfill that responsibility, we must proceed with the same sense of obligation and urgency that our first responders and other security personnel exhibit on a daily basis.

Americans depend upon our police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and security professionals to keep their families safe.  Those who work tirelessly to prevent disaster from occurring, and those who will have chosen to be our first responders when emergencies arise, need to know that they can depend on their federal government to provide the resources they need to achieve that goal.

A solid defense is just as important as an aggressive offense in the War on Terror.

Steny H. Hoyer

Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, is charged with managing the House Floor and with scheduling legislation to be considered. He also plays a key role in helping House Democrats determine their legislative agenda and in building support for the party's positions. Now in his 14th term, Hoyer represents Maryland’s Fifth Congressional District of Maryland. Earlier in his career, he won a seat in the Maryland Senate at the age of 27, and at the age of 35 was elected president of the Maryland Senate, the youngest in state history.The longest-serving House member from Southern Maryland in history, and the highest-ranking member of Congress in the state’s history, he served for two terms as Democratic whip prior to being elected majority leader. Recognized on both sides of the aisle as an effective leader and committed consensus builder, he is the former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, and is widely regarded as a champion of human and civil rights. He was the lead House sponsor of the Help America Vote Act, which President Bush signed into law on 29 October 2002, and also guided the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act to passage in 1990.

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