It doesn't fly

Posted: Jan 07, 2002 12:00 AM
It wasn't that long ago that editorial pages were excoriating House Republicans for opposing a Senate bill to make airport security screeners federal employees. The New York Times -- all bow in reverence -- dissed "obstructionist House Republican leaders" and tsk-tsked "Republican leaders' dogmatic opposition to any plan that replaced private security guards with government employees." The prevailing wisdom was that only the Senate bill -- which would put airport screeners on Uncle Sam's payroll and which senators approved unanimously -- could protect the flying public. Oh, and that the Bad Republicans were letting their love of the private sector endanger American lives, as well as the airline industry. What a joke. Now that a compromise bill has been enacted, Americans have been treated to the sorry revelation that Washington isn't poised, as the Times wrote, to replace private screeners. And what was considered sacred legislation before President Bush signed it became the brunt of ridicule after Dubya signed it into law. That's when newspapers began writing stories about how screeners who aren't citizens -- an estimated 7,000 out of 28,000 according to the Times -- stand to lose their jobs. That's when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed legislation to allow non-citizen screeners to remain on the job if they applied for citizenship and had been residents for five years -- or three years if married to American citizens. Never mind that the hallowed Senate bill, for which Feinstein and her colleagues voted, required screeners to have been citizens for five years. (That was a "technical error," a spokesperson for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, explained.) Then came the New York Times story about the Department of Transportation's decision not to require screeners to have a high school diploma. Instead, as the legislation allowed, an applicant may "have one year of any type of work experience that demonstrates the applicant's ability to perform the work of the position." So much for the elite federal workforce. Instead, make that the old screener workforce minus people with criminal records and those who don't apply for citizenship. That is, the same old largely minimum-wage workforce probably making more than twice the pay. (The DOT is expected to set the screeners' starting pay at around $25,000 a year.) I don't want to negate what the Department of Transportation is doing. Higher pay will slow the all-too-frequent exit from a job that, according to the General Accounting Office, has a turnover of "often above 100 percent a year at large airports and in at least one instance, above 400 percent a year." The flying public wants a more experienced and stable workforce. Besides, as DOT Security Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto told The Associated Press, "What we're looking for are good, qualified airport screeners and the one-year experience is invaluable, and maybe even more important than having a high school diploma." So devalued is the high school diploma that he's probably right. Still, there is a lesson to be learned from this story. The Senate is admirable in its ability to work across party lines, and quickly when the need arises. Still, the Senate clearly did not take the time to confront how problematic its bill was. And rather than confront clear flaws, they instead tried to steamroll House Repubs who did not support their bill. Jono Schaffer of the Service Employees International Union told me, "This is a completely bizarre experience for me, having worked in Democratic politics, but the fact of the matter is that if the Democratic bill in the Senate had passed, it would have had no deadline" for screening "checked" baggage. His union supported the House GOP bill. Of course, the flying public cares most about safety. Senators styled themselves as the only people who could mollify those afraid of flying. In the end, they ended up raising expectations beyond reason, then leaving the government to dash them.