WASHINGTON House Republicans and Democrats worked furiously yesterday to promote competing proposals in anticipation of today”s vote on overhauling the nation”s airport security system.
Either bill would transform how the government and airlines monitor air travel. But the two parties are battling over whether to adopt legislation, passed by the Senate unanimously in October, that would create a federal workforce of 28,000 baggage screeners. The House Republican proposal would give the president the option of using private contractors, which President Bush prefers.
House leaders continued to tinker with their bill yesterday to attract more votes. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, described more specific language on matching bags to passengers and deputizing screeners with law-enforcement powers as “some of those provisions people wanted.”
The Republicans also inserted language that would protect the New York Port Authority and plane manufacturers from liability in the Sept. 11 attacks, and a provision to exempt deferred compensation from an in an earlier bill that capped the salaries and benefits of airline chief executives for the year in exchange for $15 billion in government funds and loan guarantees.
Edward Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO”s transportation trades department, called the language on executive compensation “outrageous.”
“There are 140,000 laid-off workers who haven”t gotten a crumb from the government, and this shores up the CEOs who are obviously hurting from the Sept. 11 tragedy,” Wytkind said.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said lawmakers did not mean to limit airline executives” income as part of the recent bailout. “That was not our intention,” he said.
The liability and compensation changes brought new lobbyists to the Republican side, including representatives of plane manufacturer Boeing Co. and engine-maker Rolls Royce PLC. A few airlines are also taking more prominent roles, including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., whose lobbyists are focused on a few Georgia members.
Several unions are working hard on the other side, including associations representing pilots, flight attendants, machinists and transport workers.
Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, appeared at a Democratic press conference Wednesday morning to defend the Senate bill. He contended that some Republicans oppose federalizing baggage screeners because they don”t want federal-employee unions to gain members.
But Republican leaders said they were not fixated on unionization. “The goal here should be to get security at the highest level possible as quickly as possible,” said Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Some undecided House members said they were frustrated with both sides. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said he was more concerned about stopping explosives from being brought aboard planes, which he said was not adequately addressed in either bill, than the question of federal screeners.
“For me, this is almost a silly debate,” Shays said. “We really have a serious problem, which is: How do we keep bombs off airplanes?”
The two proposals are similar. The House and Senate bills both would bring aviation security under stricter federal control and set out more extensive training and tougher performance requirements for baggage screeners. They also would strengthen cockpit doors and put armed marshals on flights more frequently.
Both would set a passenger fee to help pay for the security system. The House Republican bill would set the fee at $2.50 for each one-way trip. The Senate fee would be $2.50 every time a passenger boards a plane.
There are differences between the bills beyond the question of baggage screening. The Senate bill would create an airport security agency under the Transportation Department, but would give responsibility for screening to the Justice Department. The attorney general would put federal screeners in the 142 largest airports, and would have the discretion to use federal screeners or state or local law enforcement officers in smaller airports.
Supporters of the Senate bill a bipartisan group led by Democrat Ernest Hollings (S.C.) and Republican John McCain (Ariz.) argue that fully federalizing airport security workers is the only way to ensure the highest quality.
Opponents argue that a workforce of civil servants would have so much job protection that it would be impossible to get rid of them if they did shoddy work. “It takes three months to hire a federal employee, and it takes forever to fire one,” Blunt said.
But supporters counter that the Senate bill would remove the usual civil service job protections for screeners and allow the attorney general to discipline or fire such workers as necessary, “notwithstanding any other provision of law.”
The legislation offered by the House Republican leadership is modeled after common practice in Europe and Israel, where governments closely supervise private contractors who screen passengers and baggage.
The House bill would keep all security work under control of the Transportation Department, not Justice. The work would be supervised by an undersecretary of transportation security.
While the undersecretary would set up and conduct training and evaluation of baggage screeners, the work would be done by private contractors though the department could use federally employed screeners at some airports.
As the debate continued in the House, the Senate yesterdau approved a proposal by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to require all air carriers flying to the United States to provide American authorities in advance with a list of passengers so names can be checked against those of terrorism suspects.
Dorgan said carriers in several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, refuse to provide names in advance, although most American and European carriers routinely do. The proposal was approved by voice vote as an amendment to an appropriations bill for the current year.