Improving airport security is far too important to become a point of contention between political parties. Which is why the House Republican leadership should drop its opposition to fully federalizing the 28,000 workers who screen passengers and baggage.
The Senate promptly approved, 100-0, an airport security measure that would require that screeners at 142 major airports be placed under the auspices of the Justice Department. This would help ensure that those who monitor who and what gets on commercial airliners have training and pay commensurate with their responsibilities.
Airport security has been handled thus far by poorly-trained, poorly-paid screeners who are prone to change their dead-end jobs within a few months. Sen. Max Cleland (D.-Ga.), summed up this scandalous situation when he said that we cannot have as our first line of defense against domestic terrorism workers who see getting a job at a fast food shop as a promotion.
Cleland is not exaggerating. The private firms that currently hire these people cannot retain a reliable work force. The turnover rate among their employees is so bad, workers seldom remain on the job for more than six months. No surprise there, since the companies have been so preoccupied with cost savings that they have routinely shortchanged their employees.
House GOP leaders Tom DeLay and Dick Armey concede there have been problems in the past, but both are adamantly opposed to screeners becoming federal employees. The Texas conservatives fret that the government has no business getting involved in something that can best be handled by the private sector.
Their reasoning is flawed. It would have us believe that while these firms are prone to get by on the cheap, they will become more responsible if directed to do so by federal authority.
The House bill, written by Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R.-Alaska), would leave it to the president's discretion whether to hire federal screeners or private employees to plug this gap in airport security. Young's measure also would include tougher federal standards for prospective screeners.
Why would the House Republican leadership accept the notion of federal oversight of screeners while balking at their becoming federal employees? Because they bristle at bolstering the government payroll with thousands of workers who would become union members. And that is at the core of this contentious dispute on Capitol Hill.
The overarching objective of both political parties should be to help ensure that the flying public is safeguarded. Essential to achieving that crucial objective is for the federal government to recruit a well-trained, well-paid cadre of screeners.
The San Diego Union-Tribune