After preventing action on aviation-security legislation for weeks-a strategy that should trouble the conscience of any politician burdened by one-Congressional Republican leaders reportedly are planning to permit a vote before the weekend. Speaker Dennis Hastert and his string-pullers, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, are no less determined to defeat the federalization proposal that has already passed the Senate unanimously, but they know they have already tested the nation’s patience.
With nearly every Democrat lined up to support the Senate version, the objects of intimidation by the House leaders are their fellow Republicans, notably including several members of the New York delegation: Pete King, Vito Fossella, Ben Gilman, Sue Kelly, John Sweeney, Jack Quinn and John McHugh. The more moderate and sensible among them, such as Mr. King and Mr. Gilman, have voiced their support for a bipartisan House version of the Senate bill. The others have remained uncommitted so far, while two upstate Republicans, Jim Walsh and Sherwood Boehlert, have agreed to support the privatization bill.
In other words, New Yorkers have an unusual opportunity to influence the outcome of this dispute, which in turn will have important consequences for national security, the economic recovery of the region and the country, and the political balance of power on Capitol Hill. It is a decision that ought to be made on merit, of course, but it is also a chance to rebuke the irresponsible, self-serving ways of Mr. DeLay and his cronies. It is a chance to inform them forcefully that their warped priorities, so weirdly unchanged by the events of Sept. 11, are no longer acceptable to the American people.
Those priorities-aside from turning over as much of the national treasure as possible over to the very wealthiest Republican campaign contributors-are to cripple even the most necessary government initiatives and to keep workers docile, unorganized and underpaid. Such primitive impulses are now in direct conflict with the best defense of the nation’s health and safety.
In arguing against the federalization bill, Mr. DeLay has exposed some amusing aspects of his own reasoning. Over and over again, he cites supposed European examples as the standard for aviation security.
Ordinarily, the xenophobia of the Republican right makes any reference to the wisdom of Europe taboo, and certainly no exception is made for suspicious pinkos in places like France, Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands. Those people are all foreigners, aren’t they?
Neither Mr. DeLay nor his mentors at the Heritage Foundation are normally inclined to point to the European example on matters of national health care, child-rearing, pensions, unionization, or any other question of domestic or foreign policy. Yet suddenly, because the function of airport security is partially privatized in many European cities, Mr. DeLay has become an incongruous but ardent advocate of continental style.
As is so often the case with the terrifying Texan, it is hard to tell whether his argument is disingenuous or simply ill-informed. Both are possible and in fact likely.
He and his colleagues probably know, for instance, that most of the security employees at European airports are in fact unionized. If they bothered to read the report prepared by the General Accounting Office on this topic more than a year ago, they also know that those European screeners are paid three times as much as their counterparts here or more, in addition to health, pension and vacation benefits.
More pertinently, they might be aware that at the best and probably most secure airport in Europe, the Netherlands’ Schiphol, government agents are omnipresent. Inspection of bags and passengers is carried out by 1,500 private workers, but under the intense scrutiny of the Ministry of Justice-specifically, no fewer than 1,300 agents of the Royal Police.
They might even have learned, if they were paying attention in recent weeks, that some European airports are plagued by the same kinds of security breaches that have embarrassed private screening companies here. At Heathrow Airport, as The Times of London reported on Oct. 16, at least 38 private guards (and perhaps dozens more) were working without proper counterterrorist security clearances, including “one man from Afghanistan” serving in a “sensitive position.” Those unvetted screeners had been hired by Securicor, the parent company of Argenbright, whose security failures have lately made headlines in this country. Maybe the time has come for Parliament to reconsider the security regime at British airports, where The Times quoted a Securicor employee saying, “There’s no way I’d risk getting on a plane from Heathrow right now and I wouldn’t let any of my family.”
The New York Republicans in Congress should remember those words when they vote on airport security. They must reject the backroom bullying and anti-union rhetoric of the DeLay faction, and render a decision in the national interest.