Speed detectors purchased by the city of Glendale in California with federal homeland security grants. Photo courtesy California Emergency Management Agency

Three new pieces of legislation pending in Congress could impact how states use the billions of dollars worth of preparedness grants Washington began awarding to them after the Sept. 11 attacks for enhancing protections against terrorism and other disasters.

House Resolution 5562 sponsored by California Democrat Laura Richardson would limit FEMA’s ability to require certain types of investments in public safety equipment, such as devices capable of defeating improvised explosive devices. The bill would also direct FEMA to determine whether caps on how much grantees can spend for management and administrative costs don’t leave enough to cover things like office personnel.

Local governments frequently complain that mountains of paperwork and ever-changing rules imposed on the funds are too burdensome. But Congress itself is often responsible for strings attached to homeland security grants, as the Center for Investigative Reporting has noted before.

Richardson said in a June 23 statement: “These legislative shortcomings have created headaches for our state and local homeland security agencies for nearly eight years, and now is the time to fix the problem so our focus can be on keeping our nation safe and not on red tape.”

A second measure, H.R. 5563, would require FEMA to annually assess the risks of disaster and terrorism each state faces and include local officials in the process. Debates over which areas of the country are actually at a high risk of attack have plagued the distribution of homeland security grants since 9/11 as lawmakers sought to deliver for constituents the most money possible from Washington. The bill is being sponsored by Democratic Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada, whose district includes the urban Las Vegas area.

“This legislation is about making sure communities, such as Las Vegas that face certain risks, have the information and data they need to best use vital homeland security funding,” Titus said in her own statement. “ … Las Vegas, like many other cities, faces unique challenges and threats, and this legislation will help FEMA understand our specific needs and more effectively administer these funds.”

Finally, Pennsylvania Democrat Chris Carney in H.R. 5573 wants the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog inspector general to examine FEMA’s oversight of readiness grants every two years. Carney is calling on the inspector general to among other things look at whether agency bureaucrats know how to properly police the funds. So far since Sept. 11 the IG has only evaluated grant spending intermittently. It hasn’t always been clear how long the new source of government spending would be around, but as of now, the spigot continues to flow freely.

The inspector general has released several reports that specifically looked at grant expenditures in individual states, and few of them have amounted to glowing reviews. States where auditors issued notably critical findings included California, Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the nation’s first homeland security secretary once served as governor.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.