GOP loss is a victory for airline passengers

November 19, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Now that the House Republicans have the fig leaf they insisted on to cover their setback in the abysmally partisan fight over airport security, Americans soon should be able to resume flying with considerably greater peace of mind.

In the argument over whether federal or private baggage screeners should be used, the 100 senators of both parties who voted for a force of 28,000 federal employees to handle the critical job prevailed. And they gave up almost nothing to the House Republicans who went down hard for the cause of private enterprise and smaller government.

The fig leaf is a provision that will permit pilot projects of private screeners - the ones who have proved to be inadequate up to now - under federal supervision at five airports.

Then, after three years under the screening by federal employees at all the other airports, authorities at those airports will be able to opt for the private baggage sleuths if they choose.

The Senate leaders, in negotiating with the House, were so confident that most or all airports will stick with the federal employees after three years that they went along.

At that, the private screeners would be permitted only if the new Transportation Department agency being established to oversee security agreed that their performance would produce an "equal or higher level" of protection.

This obviously is a heavy blow to the private companies, many of them foreign nationals, that provide screeners to the airports now.

But they have only themselves to blame for slipshod hiring practices at minimum wage, producing huge turnover in the screener workforce and continuing horror stories, even after Sept. 11, of their inefficiency.

Before the agreement, a proposal was considered whereby federal screeners would be used at the largest airports and private screeners at the smaller ones - as if the private screeners, with their questionable past performance, would have been good enough for travelers from terminals in the boondocks. That idea wasn't going to fly.

Thus comes to an end an embarrassingly long political fandango on the part of House GOP leaders and ideologues Dick Armey and Tom DeLay that risked making their party out to be the bad guy. They dragged out what the country clearly wanted and expected Congress to do long ago, not more than two months after Sept. 11.

That all 49 Republicans in the Senate voted for full federalization of the screening and that the Republicans in the House prevailed with their privatizing approach by a scant four votes provided a setup for the Democrats to put the monkey on their back in a public-relations showdown.

The House Republicans' concerns that the 28,000 new federal screeners would mean even more "big government," and that they likely would be unionized to boot, was too fearful for them to contemplate, even to reassure a frightened country of air travelers.

Not since Democrat Bill Clinton took the Republicans to the cleaners under Speaker Newt Gingrich in the government services shutdown of the winter of 1995 were they in greater jeopardy of being cast in the villain's role. Only in this instance, the public was not just chagrined about not being able to visit Yellowstone Park; family safety was at stake.

Also off the hook now are the six House Democrats who voted with the Republicans and, in effect, provided the four-vote margin that enabled Mr. DeLay to force a negotiating conference. According to House Democratic sources, the opposition of at least some of the six was based on the provision in the Senate bill barring foreign nationals from working as screeners. Try defending that objection to your average air traveler these days.

There is some grumbling in the Republican ranks that the private screener approach might have prevailed had President Bush agreed to fight harder for it when the two versions became the subject of conference negotiations. But that was a pipe dream from the start, considering the solid Senate vote for federalization.

Mr. Bush didn't really care so long as some action to improve security was taken, and quickly. He has to wonder now, if he hadn't before, whether he has the ideal House leadership team in the rigidly ideological and politically dense Mr. Armey and Mr. DeLay.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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