Police and firefighters are our security

Ironically, as we face an uncertain fiscal future today, the House Majority seeks to draw the line of division on how we protect the American people. In its first act of fiscal budgeting, the House Republican leadership, through its continuing resolution (CR) for FY2011, has decided that our local police and firefighters are somehow not a national security or homeland security priority.

As a co-chairman of the Law Enforcement Caucus and an original member of the Homeland Security Committee, I have always believed that police and firefighters — our nation’s first responders — constitute both the first and last line of defense for the American people here at home. That’s why I was so disappointed when I learned that the CR proposed by the Republican leadership treated these public safety officers as being ‘non-security’ discretionary spending, and subjected them to drastic cuts. The CR contains billions of dollars in cuts to many essential domestic programs, but it actually increases defense spending over the next year under the justification of being ‘national security’ spending. My answer to this inequity is clear: our brave local police and firefighters, who protect our streets day and night, are the very essence of our national security. The Republican leadership seems to miss the point that real homeland security begins on our streets.

The CR we will vote on today proposes to zero-out federal funding for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs. These programs directly support public-safety jobs by helping our local communities hire, rehire or retain police and firefighters. The CR would also drastically cut funds for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, which I was proud to author more than 10 years ago to provide assistance to local fire departments to purchase life-saving equipment and training. Combined, the Republican leadership proposes to cut these public-safety programs by more than $1.1 billion at a time when local budgets are being squeezed and communities are being forced to layoff their police and firefighters.

In addition to passing with broad bipartisan support, these programs were all authorized under the last Republican-controlled Congress. The steady increase in funding over the years is a reflection of their necessity and success. The AFG program has provided nearly $5.6 billion in funding to local fire departments since its authorization in FY2001. The first independent evaluation of the AFG program released by the U.S. Fire Administration concluded that the program was "highly effective in improving the readiness and capabilities of firefighters across the nation." Likewise, the COPS program has provided $12.4 billion in funding to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies to hire 117,000 officers in its lifetime. The Government Accountability Office reported that between 1993 and 2000, COPS obligations contributed to a 1.3 percent decrease in the overall crime rate and a 2.5 percent decrease in the violent crime rate. A responsive police department is not a luxury — less cops on the beat equals more crime on our streets, it’s as simple as that.

As a member of the House Budget Committee, I am working hard toward the goal of getting our deficit under control, but it should not come at the cost of national security. With this imperative in mind, I collaborated with my colleagues to introduce amendments that would restore the funding for our first responders. I am proud to report that both amendments passed with broad bipartisan support despite the objections of the Republican leadership.

Regardless of our differences seen over the partisan divide, I always thought one thing we did agree upon was that protecting the American people must be the No. 1 priority of our government. The CR offered by Republican leadership did not meet that test. I will continue to work with my colleagues to protect these public safety funds so that we can take up the call of President Lincoln to unite our House for a safer and more prosperous future.

Pascrell is a member of the House Ways and Means and Budget committees.