There’s Nothing Funny About These ‘Wingers

Now that everyone is allowed to laugh again, however anxiously, it seems appropriate to mention the farce currently playing on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress sworn to defend the United States are instead acting out their madcap obsessions. At a time when sane and sober people agree that airline security must be bolstered with new federal authority, Republican leaders are insisting that the current McDonald’s-level setup can still work just fine.

This spectacle isn’t reassuring, to say the least, but it is darkly funny-and, as usual, the most entertainment is provided by those wacky ‘wingers.

Consider freshman Representative Butch Otter (whose name aptly recalls one of the characters in Animal House ). Just the other day, the Idaho Republican was present at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on aviation security, when someone mentioned that new technology can “see” through passengers’ clothing. According to Roll Call , Mr. Otter suddenly wondered aloud whether he could “sign up to be a screener” at an airport.

Another doltish interlude featured John Cooksey, the benighted Louisiana Representative who briefly earned some national press attention for recommending that airport police apprehend anyone “wearing a diaper on his head.” And should anyone assume that comic relief can be found only on the back benches, there was a bizarre episode involving J.C. Watts, Republican of Oklahoma and chairman of the House Republican Conference.

On Sept. 28, Mr. Watts parked illegally in a loading zone at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, only to find a police sergeant putting a $15 ticket on his car when he returned. Infuriated, he grabbed the ticket, stuffed it under the officer’s badge and yelled some gibberish like, “What if I’d had a bomb?”

The Federal Aviation Administration was informed of the incident, as they are whenever some idiot talks about a bomb at an airport. Meanwhile, Mr. Watts’ wife has paid the ticket and he has apologized for his “bad behavior,” his spokeswoman told the Daily Oklahoman , explaining that since Sept. 11, the Congressman has suffered “a lot of tension, a lot of stress.”

Haven’t we all? Clowning aside, post-traumatic stress disorder surely afflicts dozens of Congressional conservatives, whose conduct increasingly defies rationality. Their inability to cope, however, doesn’t excuse their attempts to obstruct overdue measures to upgrade aviation safety and revitalize the economy. More than three dozen of them have reportedly threatened to kill a key trade bill if the Bush administration approves a Democratic initiative to federalize airport security and passes Mr. Bush’s economic-stimulus package.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign to prevent a federal takeover of this vital function-now so miserably performed by private companies-is led by Texans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey and the irrepressible Georgian, Bob Barr. These are the same characters whose primitive priorities have, in the recent past, prevented chemical “tagging” of explosives to allow easier tracing of terrorist perps by federal authorities. (Could they be the “fifth column” that a few fevered pundits have struggled lately to uncover?)

In the mouths of such politicians, conservative ideology sounds like a mental pathology. Mr. Barr, for

instance, questions whether aviation security is truly “a federal function.” Ohio Senator George Voinovich chimes in, denouncing “New Deal, Great Society–type” programs that “are going to cost an enormous amount of money.” They are unhappy with the notion that thousands of new, well-paid government employees may be hired, swelling the ranks of public-service unions. What evidently doesn’t occur to them is that this may be the best way-indeed, the only way-to guarantee that an atrocity like the airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon never happens again.

Among these Congressional bumpkins, it is a point of pride that they rarely if ever travel outside this country, so their ignorance of security protocols in other advanced countries is probably inevitable. In nations where this problem is taken seriously, the personnel who screen passengers and baggage are highly trained, decently compensated professionals with uniforms that signify state authority.

Here is a simple exercise that might help the Republican leaders transcend their hidebound ideas about political economy. Imagine a lineup of four people, all from the New York City area. The first is a police officer. The second is a firefighter. The third is an emergency-service worker. The last is an airport security guard.

The first three are employed by huge government agencies, belong to aggressive unions, earn middle-class salaries and benefits, and tend to remain in their jobs for a lifetime. (Any one of them is more likely than not a hero, too.) The fourth toils for a private company, has no union representation, gets little more than the minimum wage, usually quits after a few months, and doesn’t even have to be an American citizen to be hired. Choose one or more to help protect your family from a gang of crazed killers.

Even Bob Barr and Tom DeLay should be able to figure this out.