AT WAR – Screen Test: The fight over airport security

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It seems odd to say, but the way John Mica sees it, the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill helped the Republican aviation-security bill pass the House. The GOP bill called for a new safety system in which the nation’s 28,000 airport baggage screeners would be private contractors working under strict federal supervision-as opposed to the Senate bill, which called for all screeners to be federal employees. Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the House aviation subcommittee, had carefully studied the issue but was having trouble getting his colleagues to take the time to learn why private was better. “We were losing the battle,” he says, but then came the anthrax threat. “When members were forced out of their offices, with people on the House floor, we had a chance to sit down and discuss.” The bill passed.

If only Mica and his allies had had the chance to make one-on-one presentations to the American people. Instead, the public saw GOP leaders who seemed determined to make the worst possible case for private baggage screeners. House majority leader Dick Armey, for example, sometimes seemed to spend less time discussing air security than flailing away at the opposition. “What the Democrats want is 30,000 new dues-paying contributors,” Armey said on October 14, adding later that the Democratic plan was designed to create new members of “the federal union that happens also to be their most generous single contributor to their campaign.”

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Republicans working on the bill winced. “It was terrible,” says one GOP aide. And it wasn’t just that pronouncements like Armey’s were bad PR, sending the message that Republicans cared more about making political points than about airport safety. They also obscured the fact that Mica, House Transportation Committee chairman Don Young, and others in the GOP were working hard to find the best policy on aviation security.

They read reports on the subject. They held open hearings. They held closed hearings (to discuss classified information). They met with a wide variety of experts. And as they listened and read, they came up with the plan that became their bill.

Contrary to much of what has been written about it in the press, the Republican plan doesn’t call for a totally private screening force. Rather, it calls for private screeners working under intense federal supervision and constant testing. Maintaining that level of scrutiny will require lots of new federal workers-the supervisors and testers-so that some 25 percent of the “private” force will be government employees. But the bill doesn’t mandate precisely how many, instead giving that authority to the president and the newly created undersecretary of transportation for security.

There’s also been some misunderstanding about who those private contractors will work for. They now work for the airlines, who hired the lowest bidders without great concern for the quality of their work; under the House plan, they will be hired by the federal government- which means that the much-debated difference between the House and Senate proposals is between one bill that would make all screeners federal government employees and another bill that would make them private contractors working for the federal government.

The difference might seem small, but to many experts, it’s important. House members and staff talked extensively to European and Israeli security officials and found that some countries had tried a fully federalized security force but found it unworkable. Many of those countries now use a public/private mix similar to what Republicans proposed in the House. “We just tried to pick the best of what everybody else had done and tried not to make the mistakes that both we and they had made,” says Mica.

Beyond the commonsense realization that the most successful systems do not use a fully public-sector screening force, House Republicans believe there’s another important reason the Senate all-federal plan would not be a good idea: The federal-employee system is simply too rigid to handle the job. “We always say we’re going to add flexibility, but it just seems inherent that it takes a long time to hire them and is hard to fire them,” says David Schaffer, counsel for the aviation subcommittee, who directed much of the GOP research. “The one thing that makes federal employment attractive to people is the security of it, that you can’t be fired and you get a good retirement.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Brookings Institution found that 66 percent of lower-level federal workers cited job security as the reason they chose to work for the government. Only 30 percent of federal employees said their organizations “do a very good or somewhat good job at disciplining poor performers,” while 67 percent said they do not. That does not bode well for an aviation-security force in which poor performance would have to be quickly addressed.

Furthermore, says Dorothy Robyn, a former Clinton White House staffer who now studies aviation issues for Brookings, baggage inspection “is rote, repetitive work . . . the kind of thing that government should be able to write a contract to have someone carry out. You can define it, you can evaluate it, and you can get rid of bad performers.” Contrast that, Robyn says, to other jobs-like police work and military service- that can be handled only by the government. One could not, for example, write a contract to specify the precise duties of a police officer; the work is too varied and requires an enormous amount of discretion. But baggage screening, Robyn believes, can be handled best by contractors working under close supervision. She favors the House version of the bill because it gives the executive branch the option to do just that. “The choice is between a bill [the Senate’s] that gives the federal government the responsibility but no flexibility and a bill that gives flexibility,” she says.

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House Republicans have been accused of wanting to keep the current, dangerously inadequate, low-bid private security system in place. But the House bill specifically calls for a well-paid screening force. A Congressional Budget Office study of the cost of the House bill assumes that screeners will be paid an average base salary of about $36,000 a year-the same assumption the CBO made for the Senate bill, and more than twice the screeners’ current pay (about $15,000). Federal supervisors would make about $53,000. The bill also calls for well-paid law-enforcement officers to be present at every airport-security checkpoint in the country.

In addition, the House bill calls for more far-reaching changes in security than does the Senate version. The Senate bill was done hurriedly in the wake of September 11-lawmakers raced to pass it unanimously on the one-month anniversary of the attacks-and ignored several critical areas of air safety, like the need for full screening of checked baggage and greater security in non-public areas of airports. The House, taking more time, addressed those issues in a more comprehensive and thoughtful bill. “If we had passed the Senate bill, it would have had nice cosmetics,” says John Mica. “But would it have addressed the problems we face with aviation security? Absolutely not.”

Yet for their troubles, the House lawmakers were hit with charges that they didn’t care about aviation security. On November 12, after the apparently accidental crash of an American Airlines jet in New York, House minority leader Richard Gephardt said he hoped the crash would motivate House Republicans to get “off their duff” and adopt the Senate measure. He accused majority whip Tom DeLay of selling out to the private security companies-and even wondered whether DeLay was “on the same planet as I’m on.”

It was not what one might call a constructive contribution to the debate. But House Republicans-who take aviation security very seriously-pressed on. They didn’t go for the quick fix or the easy soundbite, as the Senate and the Democrats in the House had. They just tried to do the right thing.

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