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The $600,000 budget thorn

In November 2008, President-elect Obama’s transition teams were deployed to federal agencies to be briefed on priorities and budgets. I served on the review team for the Department of Homeland Security, where I would later work. It is an odd but time-honored process: the old guard briefing the new guard. It represents the best of peaceful democratic transitions.

Briefer after briefer would come into the room and tell us that some particular program or purchase was essential to America’s security, so essential that to end or modify it would put lives at risk. It is difficult to judge such assessments until you get inside. But the bigger problem was how the security debate was framed: ratcheting up saves lives, ratcheting down kills Americans. But presenting only those two alternatives cheats the process. The long-ago transition provides a glimpse into the frustrating nature of the security budget debates today.

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