While DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is poised to announce the Department’s new threat advisory system, doing away with the oft-maligned color-coded system, it’s worth asking whether this is the rating system most critical to U.S. homeland security. In an announcement yesterday, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) “lowered its outlook for America’s long-term credit rating to ‘negative’ from ‘stable.’” In other words, we went from “we’re tolerable” to “we stink,” and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen pointed out a year ago, our growing debt is a national security concern.

That would be a serious enough comment coming from a senior national security official but coming from the man whose job is to supervise our nation’s military operations, those words were especially of note because words like that are customarily not found in military talking points. Now comes word from one of the top credit rating institutions in the world that we are paddling faster in a leaking boat with crocodile creditors surrounding us and dry, solvent land is nowhere in sight. This may not seem like a homeland issue to most but our credit worthiness and financial solvency is very much in the national interest.

I cannot attest that I am an expert on the details and intricacies of our nation’s financial services systems; there are some very good reasons why my wife is firmly in charge of the family’s checkbook, but this news should be of deep concern to all of us.

Despite the fact that 49 states are required by law to balance their budgets (Vermont is the only state without such legal provision) a number of states are burdened by tremendous debt that literally threatens their financial solvency. California alone has a budget deficit of $26.6 billion dollars, which represents just over 30% of the entire state budget but the Golden State is not alone. Out of our 50 states, 20 of them have more than a billion dollars of obligations a piece.

According to a March 2011 Report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “some 44 states and the District of Columbia are projecting budget shortfalls totaling $112 billion for fiscal year 2012.” Their projections for the immediate future are not much more promising, with states continuing to wrestle with these on-going fiscal burdens.

We can have all the debates we want on how we ended up in this mess, and there is more than enough free-wheeling spending blame to go around, but debt matters, and it matters even more if you can’t begin to pay it off. Living the large life on the credit card as we have as a nation for the past few decades has tremendous consequences. Now the bills are coming due, and that is being reflected in the upcoming budgets for homeland security. For the first time in the Department’s history, its budget is forecast to go down. That trend is going to hold true for state and local levels, and those budgets are going to be trimmed significantly as well.

While these budget adjustments will have an impact, homeland security will remain a viable presence on many levels. These are jobs that need to be done and will be done but in different, more cost-conscious ways. That may be the only silver lining to the threatening storm clouds of debt that hover over us, but as taxpayers, we deserve and should demand a more conscientious approach to the funds we spend.

The sobering wake-up calls given by Admiral Mullen and now S&P are powerful reminders that our free-wheeling spending habits are as much a threat to our homeland as the forces of nature and evil that from time-to-time strike our communities. As taxpayers, we can and should be the screeners, the border patrol and emergency managers to our expenditures, and it’s a duty that we have collectively done a lousy job of upholding.

We’ve now been put on notice by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the one of the world’s top credit rating groups. There certainly has been a lot of rhetoric and posturing from all sides when it comes to addressing the issue, but in the end, the only thing that matters in national and economic security is one word – action. That’s what changes everything and in the end, it’s the only ranking that matters.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More