Finally, an Airport Security Bill

On October 11 the Senate unanimously passed legislation drafted by Senators Ernest Hollings, D-S.C. and John McCain, R-Ariz. that would place baggage- and passenger-screeners at major U.S. airports under federal authority and make them government employees. Since the House version of the bill sponsored by Reps. Bob Andrews, D-N.J. and Greg Ganske, R-Iowa was supported by all but three Democrats, as well as 15 Republicans, it seemed headed for quick passage. But despite polls indicating overwhelming public support for federalizing airport security workers, John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, vowed that the bill, would be consigned to a "slow track." True to Feehery's promise, Republicans delayed a vote until October 29, and then until the 31st, then November 1, and finally to the evening of the 1st -- all while they rallied votes for a competing measure sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. The Young bill only federalized 25% of airport security personnel, and made airport security a responsibility of the patronage-prone Department of Transportation, while Ganske-Andrews gave it to the Justice Department. It was the Young bill that finally passed the House, by a vote of 286-139. A so-called conference committee with representation from the Senate and the House eventually resolved differences between the two measures, and legislation very similar to the Senate bill passed the House on November 16 by a vote of 410 - 9.

During the time the GOP was holding up the security legislation, a federal investigator carried three knives past a security checkpoint at Miami International Airport, a Mississippi man carried a loaded gun onto a flight from New Orleans to Phoenix, and a Nepalese man carried nine knives past a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Lending more weight to the argument for federalizing airport security, Argenbright Holdings, Ltd., the largest provider of airport security services in the U.S., admitted that it had violated terms of probation that had been part of its 2000 conviction for falsifying records, and had continued to hire and employ people with criminal backgrounds.

The final airport security bill charges the Department of Transportation with responsibility for hiring, training, testing, and deploying 28,000 airport secrurity workers within one year. After three years, airports can request permission from the federal government to use private firms or local law enforcement officers to screen passengers and baggage, but few are expected to take the option. The bill also calls for all checked baggage to be screened, airplane cockpit doors to be reinforced, and the number of U.S. marshals on commercial flights to be increased. Background checks on applicants is expected to be the most time consuming component of the hiring process, although government and labor officials expressed optimism that the task was feasible. Beth Moten of the American Federation of Government Employees told the New York Times, "It will take a little time for the government to do the background checks, but it's not an insurmountable task at all. The pay scale for screeners will be quite decent." (Screeners will be paid between $30,000 and $50,000 compared to the current $15,000). Janice R. Lachance, director of the Office of Personnel Management under President Bill Clinton, agreed. "You are starting with a work force that has experience with this. I assume they have a desire and would be encouraged to apply," she said.

Several recent highly publicized incidents involving airport security, as well as continuing legal woes for the major private provider of airport security strenghthened the Senate's hand in dealing with opposition from conservative members of the House.

The security firm Argenbright was ordered to perform digital fingerprint-based background checks on all of its employees as part of a settlement reached in a federal court in Philadelphia on October 23. Prosecutors admitted that Argenbright would not be able to comply fully in the short term, because of regulations that permit the Federal Aviation Administration to enforce fingerprint checks only at designated airports. The judgement came a year after Argenbright was fined $1.2 million and given three years probation for employing convicted criminals at Philadelphia airport. Argenbright was sold by AHL Services of Atlanta to U.K.-based Securicor PLC in December 2000. Frank Argenbright, Jr. joined Securicor as part of the transaction, although he remains a director of AHL. The chairman of Securicor is Sir Neil Macfarlane, former member of the British Parliament, and a junior government minister.

Early this October federal authorities accused Argenbright Holdings of continuing to employ convicted criminals at 14 U.S. airports, including Philadelphia, Boston's Logan International, and Washington's Dulles. Argenbright Holdings also provides security services at Chicago's O'Hare where Subush Gurung carried knives past a checkpoint on November 2. Argenbright suspended eight employees in connection with the knife-carrying incident. A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Aviation dismissed the suspensions as an inadequate response. Referring to the federalization debate, she added "Since we don't have control over the company or the workers, there's nothing more we can do. The issue needs to be addressed and it clearly is not being addressed." On November 5 Argenbright fired three employees in connection with the O'Hare incident. Four days later Securicor announced that Argenbright's founder CEO, Frank Argenbright would be replaced by Securicor executive David Beaton. On November 15 Argenbright's license to operate in Massachusetts was suspended after an employee left an exit door at Logan Airport unattended for four minutes.

During the protracted formal and informal debate over airport security legislation, supporters of the Young bill consistently pointed to Israel's El Al airlines as an example of the kind of partnership between public and private sectors that they envisioned working in the U.S. According to Tsahi Stromza, El Al's chief security officer, however, "In principle, all security personnel in airline and airport security in Israel and abroad are employed by the Israeli government. There are a few exceptions in El Al stations outside of Israel, where it is difficult to employ local Israelis. In Israel, security personnel are employed by the Israel airport authority, which is a governmental organization."

Ignoring the fact that the Senate passed the McCain-Hollings bill unanimously, House Republicans had accused Democrats of pandering to organized labor. House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas said, "It's all about union membership in a union that imposes compulsory dues that fund their campaigns." Republican Senator McCain countered that "some of the brave firemen and police enforcement people that have died in the World Trade Center were members of a union." House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri labeled House Republican leaders extremists, suggesting that they had received campaign contributions from "the special interests who did not want to lose their contracts."

The Bush administration, while claiming publicly that it would support any airline security bill, nonetheless worked actively behind the scenes to ensure passage of the Young bill in the House. Representative Andrews described the lobbying by the White House and GOP leadership as "absolutely intense pressure." Seven of the 15 original Republican co-sponsors of Ganske-Andrews defected, as did six Democrats. Hastert spokesman John Feehery credited House Majority Whip Tom Delay, speaker Hastert, and Bush with having influenced representatives to vote for the Young bill. McCain had a different take, saying they were "out there just buying votes." A Gephardt spokesman echoed McCain's assessment. "The bazaar was open.... The casbah was active. If anything, we're proud of the fact so many Democrats said no." Democrat Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, according to reporting by, may have exchanged his vote for a promise that House speaker Hastert would not actively campaign against him in his bid for governor next year. An alternate theory is that Blagojevich switched his vote in an attempt to gain support of the Service Employees International Union, which represents private security personnel. The same report suggested that Illinois Rep. Guttierrez withdrew his support for Ganske-Andrews in exchange for a housing project in his district being added to the appropriations bill for the Veterans Administration Housing and Urban Development Department.

Even with passage of what is essentially the Senate bill, observers have suggested that the earlier House vote to keep airport security private, in the face of repeated failures of the system and criminal prosecution of provider firms, reinforced the public perception that the Republican party is being led by Gingrich-era-holdovers, hardliners Armey and Delay, of Texas. Despite his efforts to appear to be above the fray, some of the perception may carry over to Mr. Bush. Representative Nita Lowey of New York, who is in charge of the Democratic House campaigns said, "I think Tom DeLay and Dick Armey will make the case for a Democratic House.... There are clear differences on the domestic front, and we are going to have to articulate them. People are so nervous. They are hurting. They are afraid. The candidates who show them they are on their side will be the ones who succeed." And although newly-converted-Republican Mike Bloomberg won the New York mayoralty with his $50-million ad campaign, Democrats picked up governorships in New Jersey and Virginia (having also won the mayoralty of Los Angeles earlier this year), as the Wall Street Journal predicted. National Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe observed, "The American people are maintaining a very fine distinction in their minds,&quot between supporting Bush as commander in chief, and partisan programs with which they may or may not agree. Bush 2000 campaign adviser and University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw agreed. "Unless you're the guy in charge, there's no party advantage in this," adding that Democrats had maintained their advantage on domestic issues, while minimizing their vulnerability on national security questions by backing Bush's war effort.


Pear, Robert "Racing to Offer the Details of a Plan on Airline Security" NY Times 17 Nov. 2001

Bachman, Justin "Airport Security Firm Replaces CEO" Associated Press. 9 Nov. 2001

Miller, Leslie "Logan Airport Bars Security Firm" Associated Press. 15 Nov. 2001

Tapper, Jake "Airport security up in the air" 30 Oct. 2001

Tapper, Jake "How'd Bush do it?" 3 Nov. 2001

Morgan, David "US Judge orders fingerprint checks at Argenbright" Reuters. 23 Oct. 2001

Wilgoren, Jodi "F.B.I. Says Man Carried Knives Past Screeners" NY Times 6 Nov. 2001

Mitchell, Alison "Patriotic Partisanship on Capitol Hill" NY Times 4 Nov. 2001

Harwood, John "Democrats Are Poised for Key Victories as Pall of Terrorism Erodes Momentum" Wall Street Journal 30 Oct. 2001.

For complete text of the Aviation Security Act search for S.1447 here.