Prompted by tragedy and an impatient public, the House Republican leadership backed off their opposition to the federalization of airport security workers on Thursday. As a compromise agreement with the Senate on a larger airport security bill was announced and finalized, House Republicans brashly tried to portray their caving as a victory. But one House Republican congressman painted a more apt picture of the day, telling colleagues that the House GOP's position -- opposed by a majority of the public, according to polls -- was a recipe for self-destruction.
The compromise works like this: The Department of Transportation (as opposed to the Justice Department, the Senate's preference) will have a year to make airport security personnel a full federal work force -- personnel who will enjoy few of the job protections afforded other federal employees. Two years after federalization has been implemented, airports can opt out and return to a privatized service to provide employees.
It was a fairly stunning capitulation by House Republicans, who had previously turned down Senate compromise proposals that would have allowed for the continued use of private security firms in all but the largest three dozen or so airports.
The Senate voted 100-0 on Oct. 11 to federalize the nation's 28,000 airport security workers; in a more contentious 218-214 vote on Nov. 1, the House opted to introduce federal supervision while retaining private contractors to do the job. A Washington Post-ABC News poll from early November indicated that Americans supported the Senate position on federalization over the House position, 55 percent to 36 percent.
Both bills included similar measures, including adding more air marshals to the flight-going public, fortifying cockpit doors, and taking steps toward the eventual screening of all checked luggage. Still, because of the federalization controversy, airport security was stuck in holding pattern. House Republicans -- led by Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas -- rejected various compromise proposals. Democratic Senate negotiators, Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C, and John Kerry, D-Mass., dug in their heels, convinced by polls that they had a winning issue.
Then American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in New York on Monday, killing more than 260 people and shaking up the Hill.
The cause of the accident remains murky, but the continued laxness of airport security was clearly the topic of the day.
When Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had flown to New York to sound the opening bell of NASDAQ Monday morning, first saw footage of the crash he thought it was from Afghanistan, an aide said.
Lott then vowed that he would do whatever he could to have a compromise bill by the end of the week.
The next day, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., announced he was inviting Stephen Push of Falls Church, Va. -- whose wife, Lisa Raines, died as a passenger aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11 -- to a press conference urging immediate action on the airport security bill. Push belongs to a coalition whose loved ones were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and who support the federalization of airport security workers. The stakes were being raised.
The next day, Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican co-sponsor of the Senate bill in favor of federalization, sent out an alert to the 200,000 individuals on his Straight Talk America e-mail list announcing that the airport security bill is "now being held hostage in a conference committee." He urged them to call House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Armey and DeLay and "tell them that the American public demands the same level of safety that members of Congress insist on for themselves."
"Continuing to allow the American people to rely on these contract baggage-claim people is like letting the Boston Strangler massage your neck," grumbled Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., at a Wednesday hearing on airport security.
By Wednesday evening, Lott met with Hollings and DeLay and sold them on the idea of an "opt-out" provision -- the airport security workforce would be federalized, but after a couple of years airports could opt out and return to private screeners if they wanted. Meanwhile, House Republicans began griping that President Bush wasn't doing enough to apply pressure on the Democrats. "It certainly would be nice for the president to come out and say, 'I support the House bill,'" one senior House GOP leadership aide told Roll Call. "Since we passed the bill in the House, he hasn't come out and said anything definitively. We've got a lot of half-baked statements from [White House spokesman] Ari Fleischer that could be interpreted for us or against us."
Thursday morning, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House transportation committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of its subcommittee on aviation, Hollings, Kerry, McCain and a few others met for an hour and hashed it out. A tentative deal was cut, pending the approval of the House and Senate leadership.
The bill also addresses the issue of checked baggage, the vast majority of which currently passes untouched and uninspected into the plane's cargo hold. By 2002, all checked bags will have to go through new screening devices and explosive detection machines. Approximately 1,500 new screening machines will be purchased for this, at an approximate cost of $1.5 billion, as well as 1,500 new explosive detection machines, at a cost of $60 million. This marks a significant improvement on the Senate bill, which merely ordered a study of the matter.
About half of the costs of these new expenses will be funded by a new surcharge per ticket, ranging from $2.50 to $5, with the other half absorbed by airlines and the federal government. Bones thrown to the House GOP include a pilot program in five airports where private security personnel will be utilized so as to compare their efficiency with that of federal workers. A House provision shielding various New York City entities, like the Port Authority, from lawsuits stemming from Sept. 11 -- requested by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and first offered to secure the support of New York Republicans -- was also included, with some changes. Young also boasted of "a yearlong transition which gives the secretary [of Transportation] a lot of latitude in how to set up the transition for the two-year federalization of the screeners."
"They were getting their brains beat," a Senate GOP source said of the House Republicans' sudden capitulation on the issue of federalization. "Polling numbers didn't look good, they couldn't get Bush to reengage. It was a loser for them, so they caved."
Which is the opposite of the way the senior House Republicans -- Armey and DeLay noticeably absent from their ranks -- tried to portray the matter, of course.
"I don't think we should get hung up on whether they're federalized or not," Young said. "Overall I think we won, big-time."
Young said that the heft of the compromise bill was taken from the House version he drafted. "If their bill was so good, they wouldn't have done that," he said. A Senate staffer who helped draft the bill denied Young's charge, saying that the bill was a true compromise.
Looking for other ways to claim victory, DeLay said in a statement that the bill "makes other areas of airports -- which the Senate overlooked -- more secure, such as the tarmac, caterers, perimeter and checked luggage."
In applauding the compromise, Bush, too, put a spin on what was essentially a loss, as he, too, spoke against federalization -- though he tellingly didn't offer a veto threat. "This agreement improves upon the Senate-passed legislation in several important ways, including putting responsibility for all modes of transportation security at the Department of Transportation, where it belongs," Bush said.
As far as three blocks away from the Capitol Dome, Capitol Hill police offers stand alert on every corner. Streets between House and Senate office buildings have been closed to traffic, shut down with concrete blocks. Capitol Hill police inspect every bag while visitors proceed through metal detectors. The Capitol is safe. Or it seems that way, at any rate.
The fact that such security has yet to be given to our nation's airports was underlined the day before by Kenneth Mead, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation, who testified Wednesday before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee about "alarming lapses of security" his inspectors had detected. In 1998 and 1999, Mead testified, "we successfully accessed secure areas in 68 percent of our tests at eight major U.S. airports. Once we entered secure areas, we boarded aircraft 117 times."
Post-Sept. 11, there are still big problems, Mead said. His inspectors had found 90 security problems in just the past few weeks -- airlines not conducting random checks of passengers as they're supposed to be doing, screeners missing knives in carry-on bags, less than 10 percent of checked bags being inspected for bombs. An inspection last weekend of nine U.S. airports that currently own explosive-detection machines indicated that only eight of 30 were in continuous use -- even though a mid-September directive from the Federal Aviation Administration ordered airports to continuously run these machines to screen bags for explosives.
"It will truly be outrageous if Congress leaves for Thanksgiving without passing aviation security legislation," the chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said at the hearing.
A day later, Mica and Young tried to sell the compromise bill as a GOP triumph. Hastert stepped back and a long fern leaf tickled his head. Distracted, he looked up, squinting at the leaf, then readjusted his stance so the leaf bounced an inch above his mussed gray hair.
Asked when the House would vote on the compromise bill, Mica motioned to Hastert and said, "as soon as he schedules it." Asked how many votes the bill would get, Mica and Young simultaneously said, "Lots."
In his statement, DeLay tried to spotlight the airport pilot program, as if it were a significant part of the bill. The compromise "will test two different security approaches to determine which works better in practice," DeLay said. "Airports will retain the option to opt out of the new system if they can develop more effective methods to protect air travelers."
"I'm very pleased that we have an agreement before the Thanksgiving holiday and I expect the bill to be on the president's desk by the end of the week," DeLay added.
Indeed, reassuring the public in time for the busiest travel day of the year seemed a high priority. "The fact is, the American people when they start to travel on the holidays know that life is going to be safer, planes are going to be safer, the environment around the airport will be safer because of the legislation we passed," Hastert said. Lott said the compromise would give Americans "peace of mind when they get on airplanes across the country, especially as we approach Thanksgiving."
Their words were artfully chosen. Because even if the airport security compromise becomes law Friday, there's nothing in it that will actually make travel the day before Thanksgiving any safer than it was two Saturdays ago when Subash Gurung and his seven knives, stun gun and can of mace proceeded unfettered through security at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Gurung, in fact, is arguably more responsible for better holiday airport security than anyone else. The incident so angered President Bush, he issued a directive that will fill airports with more than 720 FAA agents next week to inspect airport security. In terms of immediate changes, Bush has done far more than Congress. Through executive order, Bush and Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta have ordered air marshals and thicker, more secure cockpit doors to airplanes, but the overall measure will literally take years to truly take hold.
But then again, this bill could have passed two weeks ago, had Bush not set his lobbyists to sandbag the House version of the Senate bill in favor of the one offered by Young. And it was Mineta, who had originally backed the Senate bill -- according to Senate sources involved in the process -- who then capitulated to the House GOP after meeting with Armey and DeLay. On Thursday, he was firmly backing the compromise.
"When this new program is implemented, the confidence of the American traveler will be further restored," Mineta said.
Confidence, shmonfidence. I asked Mica what specifically would change in time for the holidays to actually make air travel safer because of the compromise bill.
"All the provisions are in there as much as you can possibly do," Mica said. "And the short-term and long-term authority is there, which isn't there now. The best thing in the bill is the unprecedented rule-making and cutting through the regulations" to purchase and implement high-tech security equipment.
But what specifically will make Thanksgiving travel any safer than on the flight Subash Gurung almost got on? Or Mohammed Atta, for that matter?
"We'll have this in place, man!" Mica said. "It's a victory, a clear victory!"