We'll be hearing a lot in the next day or so about how a federal air marshal shot and killed a man who was said to be acting in a threatening manner on an American Airlines flight that landed in Miami today. What we probably won't be hearing so much about: how a Republican-controlled conference committee killed $50 million in funding for the air marshal program last year and pushed Homeland Security officials to abandon a program that would have put more air marshals on more airliners.
During the course of debate on the 2005 Homeland Security appropriations bill, a bipartisan group of senators that included Bill Frist, Thad Cochran, Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy proposed an amendment that would have added $50 million in air marshal funding to that which had already been approved by the House. In a press release issued at the time, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said that the funding was needed to "hire additional air marshals and provide them with the resources they need to do their jobs."
The Senate adopted the amendment and ultimately adopted, by a vote of 93-0, a Homeland Security appropriations bill that included approximately $713 million for the federal air marshal program. By the time the appropriations bill got out of the Republican-controlled House-Senate conference, the $50 million was gone.
The same conference committee report that killed $50 million in additional funding for air marshals contained some advice for the Bush administration: Stop training Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to work as "surge capacity" air marshals during times of heightened fears of terrorism. The plan had been to boost aviation security in a "heightened threat environment" by "tactically deploying ICE agents" to supplement regular air marshals. But in the conference report on the 2005 Homeland Security appropriation bill, the conferees said that they believed "that this is not an effective use of resources or training, and that it no longer has the full support of either ICE or FAM management." They said the "training program should be discontinued." And As John Aravosis has noted at AMERICAblog, officials at Homeland Security followed the conferees' advice. In a report issued last month, the Government Accountability Office said that the Department of Homeland Security discontinued the cross-training of immigration agents as a direct response to the direction from the Republican-controlled committee.