After a Kwame Holman background report, Jim Lehrer examines the debate about federalizing the airport security system with Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee. Due to traffic, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the NewsHour's other scheduled guest, was unable to make it in time for the discussion.
KWAME HOLMAN: The airport security camera image of suspected September 11 hijacker Muhammad Atta, presumably carrying a weapon, helped transform American air travel. Today, it often involves careful screening, long waits, as identifications are triple- checked and manual baggage inspections.
On board, many airliner cockpit doors are reinforced, passengers are on alert, and some pilots reportedly have non-lethal weapons with them in the cockpit. But the precautions have not restored the airline industry to health. According to the industry's trade group, air travel plummeted from ten million passengers per week to two million after the attacks.
Ridership climbed slowly, but through the first weeks of October leveled off at about seven million passengers and hovers there, nearly three million passengers below normal. The airlines fly only 80% of their pre-September 11 schedules. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of airline industry workers took early retirement offered by their companies or simply remain laid off. President Bush called on Americans to fly again and promised legislative steps to restore confidence.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. We are going to make our airline security stronger and more reliable. I will work with Congress to put the federal government in charge of passenger and bag screening and all safety inspections. (Cheers and applause) We will make our standards tougher and better and consistent all around the country. (Cheers and applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Two weeks later, Congress acted. The Senate passed an aviation security bill unanimously.
SPOKESPERSON: The ayes are 100; the nays are zero; the bill is agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: It calls for secure cockpit doors only flight crews can open, enough federal air marshals to put one aboard every commercial flight, background checks on anyone wishing to take flight school training, and federally employed screeners at security checkpoints under the control of the Justice Department. Currently, there are 28,000 such screeners. They work for private companies hired by the airlines, which pay $700 million a year for security services. But the screeners' pay is low.
The jobs have few benefits and turnover is staggeringly high. Worse, say critics, some were found to have criminal records, and screeners repeatedly failed to detect weapons or other contraband in unannounced tests. Whether screeners should be federal workers or better trained and better paid private employees is at the center of a largely partisan struggle in the House of Representatives that's lasted for weeks. Most Democrats favor the federal workforce provision passed by the Senate and today blamed leaders of the Republican- controlled House for delaying a vote.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I've seen with my own eyes people in the seats behind me who were forming vigilante committees in case terrorists happened to appear on the flight. I've read stories about people forgetting to check their weapons and screeners who fail to stop them. And I'm baffled. I'm baffled that the House still hasn't brought up, let alone passed, strong security legislation for all Americans.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican leaders finally scheduled floor action on aviation security for tomorrow after taking time to whip up support for keeping screeners employed by private companies but with tighter federal oversight.
SPOKESMAN: Remember, tough new standards will turn out to be toothless if President Bush is denied the flexibility to demand rigid accountability. We want to link the accountability of the federal government to the flexibility of the private sector. We support an airline security bill that empowers President Bush with the flexibility to the... That he needs to use the most effective security techniques. The Senate bill ignores that flexibility and mandates that the President pick one system.
KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush prefers the House Republican approach but might accept a federalized workforce in order to get an aviation security bill. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta yesterday ordered the government to step in to correct ongoing airport security lapses.
NORMAN MINETA: If secure areas in airports have been compromised, then we will take corrective actions to recheck passengers, including rescreening passengers. If a secure area is breached, FAA agents will empty the concourse, rescreen passengers, and if necessary, hold flights.
KWAME HOLMAN: The airlines' trade group says nervousness about safety remains a deterrent to getting some people to fly. And a new aviation security law will go a long way toward putting people at ease and back on airplanes.
JIM LEHRER: Now to our debate about that law: Congressman John Mica, Republican of Florida, chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, and we plan to be joined here in a moment by Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, who is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Congressman Mica, why does it matter whether or not these airport screeners are federal employees or not?
REP. JOHN MICA: Well that's Jim evolved into the main political question, but there is a larger question and that's how we develop a comprehensive plan for not only aviation, but transportation security. And that's what the Senate bill fails to do. And that's why we've tried to put a much more comprehensive package together on the House side.
JIM LEHRER: But on the scanners issue, you feel strongly that they should not be federal employees, is that right?
REP. JOHN MICA: Well, actually our bill says they may be federal employees. We require federal - first we take away from the airlines a federal responsibility for the screening process; it becomes a federal process. We have federal managers, federal supervision, we have federal background checks, federal testing, and also most importantly, federal oversight. We model a European model.
They tried federalization in the 80s and then they went to a public-private partnership. Besides we're creating a bureaucracy, Jim, that's bigger than the Department of State, the Department of Labor, HUD, Energy or the Department of Education. 28 to 30,000 federal baggage screeners, we could have a secretary of baggage screening, that doesn't answer our problem. We have to have a comprehensive security package, and so it's become a political question that we make these all federal employees. And screeners are only part of the aviation and transportation security arrangement and plan that we need in place.
JIM LEHRER: But it's the screeners issue that's held this thing up, is it not?
REP. JOHN MICA: Unfortunately that's been the political part.
JIM LEHRER: But from your point of view, go back to my first question, what difference does it make if they're federal... Is the problem that it creates a new bureaucracy?
REP. JOHN MICA: Absolutely, partly a bureaucracy. I chaired Civil Service for four years in the House. We tried to get performance standards in place for current federal employees and it was defeated every time. Performance standards are very important.
At least if you have federal supervision, strong federal supervision and management and then strong oversight, if you have the proper guidance and we employ some of these people in the private sector, they could be fired immediately.Our nuclear plants, Jim, our bases overseas, in fact, 20 some federal actions... Agency agencies employ federal private security, so with the proper standards in place we think they could do the job.
JIM LEHRER: You said the political issue has become the scanners and Congressman Nadler by the way just for the record is caught in traffic -- there are some traffic problems out here on the highway that goes by our studio. That's the reason he has not arrived yet. Let me play devil's advocate. The basic complaint seems to be that you Republicans object to the possibility that these 28,000 scanners would be Democrats, is that right, because they would be union members and then Democrats?
REP. JOHN MICA: That's been raised as an issue -- I haven't really raised that as an issue. Some of the unions have now gotten into the fray; they're putting ads on the Washington area screen. That's not the issue. I'm more concerned about the meat in the bill. For example, the Senate bill has no provision for rule making.
The problems of September 11, the Senate bill will take us back to September 10th -- we haven't been able to get in rules to put yet the very best equipment, the very best technology, because it takes 3.8 years on average to get a rule through the Department of Transportation. With rules for standards for baggage screeners it's been six years and tonight we still don't have in place a rule. The Senate bill does not even address, not even mention, giving someone the responsibility and authority to put rules in place on an immediate basis and that's critical.
JIM LEHRER: But what you would say to today somebody who's saying it's all well and good to sit here and criticize the Senate bill - the Senate Bill at least has done something - they have passed that bill 100-1 and the House six weeks later has done absolutely nothing.
REP. JOHN MICA: That's not true; they passed a bill after two hearings. We conducted extensive hearings. We conducted hearings over three or four weeks. We had five open hearings, two closed hearings; we brought in experts from around the world and the United States. We said what's the best and where are our flaws? We incorporated it into one bill.
We had agreement between Democrats and Republicans on the House side on the measure. The thing that tore us apart was the question of these federalized screeners. Ironically the Senate bill leaves up leaving federal law enforcement under the Department of Transportation and transferring 28,000 screeners to Justice in a bifurcated, really bifurcated disjointed organization. So that's any problem with their bill.
JIM LEHRER: But the screener thing is a deal breaker for you, is it not?
REP. JOHN MICA: It is. It would be unfortunate if that passed the Senate bill, that we don't get this to conference and straighten this out. The American people deserve the very best aviation and transportation security provisions and the Senate bill, which was hastily put together and I think they that tried do the best they could. They tossed it to us and now we have a vote to -- unfortunately on a political basis to decide what security plan we're going to have in place.
JIM LEHRER: And there is going to be a vote tomorrow?
REP. JOHN MICA: The Rules Committee just finished a rule and there will be up and down votes on both of the issues. So we're not playing games. Again we want the very best provisions. I fly, my family flies. All Americans use our transportation system. We need a comprehensive good plan and hopefully that's what we'll get.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Secretary Mineta that the system is still full of holes despite what happened on September 11?
REP. JOHN MICA: Oh, absolutely, and the Senate bill does not one thing to adjust them. Again, the biggest problem is rule making, getting in place, for example, technologies -- technologies that would detect wet plastic weapons like they may have taken on board some of the aircraft on September 11. That technology isn't still in place because we can't get a rule passed. The Senate bill does nothing to address that problem. So it would be a sad day if we passed Senate bill.
JIM LEHRER: All right. As is obvious, Congressman Nadler did not show. So we're going to leave it there. Congressman Mica, thank you very much.
REP. JOHN MICA: Thank you, Jim, good to be with you.