Justice Grants and Federalism

USA Today reports that “the Justice Department gave more than $77 million in stimulus funds this year to 200 police agencies because of their locations rather than economic or crime-fighting needs, department records show.” Why? Because a 1994 congressional provision requires that every state gets a slice of the local law enforcement funding, regardless of need or circumstances.

The Justice Department has a merit-based ranking system, but in some cases it doesn’t matter thanks to Congress making sure that every plate gets some gravy:

In Houston, where increasing assaults nudged up violent crime in 2008, Police Chief Harold Hurtt says the city was “overlooked.” The agency requested money for 260 officers but got nothing despite a Justice Department score of 90.4. That was well above many of the agencies that qualified because they were the only applicants in their state, including Boise, which scored 58.5; Cheyenne, Wyo., 46.8; Honolulu, 81.3; and Omaha, 84.7.

As a Cato essay on fiscal federalism notes, irrational federal granting isn’t new:

A 1940 article in Congressional Quarterly lamented: ‘The grants-in-aid system in the United States has developed in a haphazard fashion. Particular services have been singled out for subsidy at the behest of pressure groups, and little attention has been given to national and state interests as a whole.’ A June 1981 report by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations concluded, ‘Regarding national purpose, the record indicates that federal grant-in-aid programs have never reflected any consistent or coherent interpretation of national needs.’

The USA Today says that the National Sheriffs’ Association is upset because “the rule funded just 6.4% of sheriff applicants, compared with 16.7% of police agencies.” The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents both winner and loser cities, came up with a brilliant solution: “The way to solve this problem is…to increase the funding.”

The squabbling over the Justice grants illustrates the advantages of the federal government sticking to the limited powers that it was intended to wield. Local taxpayers should fund local law enforcement services. But in a day and age where Congress can play Santa Claus, this simple concept has become completely lost upon federal policymakers.