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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist, the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., and author of the newly-published book Spin This!

Bill Press: Airport security should be a federal job

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Nothing will ever convince conservatives that they should just admit they're wrong. Not even the worst terrorist attacks in our history have convinced conservatives to admit they're wrong about the great work done by federal employees.

Take the debate over airport security.

It's been seven weeks since we discovered airport security was as porous as the Pakistani-Afghan border. But we still have done nothing about it, because President Bush and House Republican conservatives would rather play party politics.

We didn't need terrorists to teach us that airport security was a joke. Anybody who's ever flown out of any U.S. airport could tell you that. Those rent-a-cops clearly have no law enforcement experience and no interest in their jobs. They're distracted, many of them barely speak English, and they lounge around dreaming of landing a better-paying job, like flipping burgers at McDonald's. Last year, turnover among so-called airport security guards was 416 percent.

And not much has improved since Sept. 11. In New Orleans last week, a man boarded his plane and took his seat before realizing he had a gun in his briefcase, which was never detected by security guards. Same thing happened in Atlanta. At Dulles International, outside of Washington, a man carrying a knife was stopped at security. He returned later with the knife in his shoe, and walked right through.

Clearly, these problems will persist as long as the important function of airport security is auctioned off to the lowest bidder -- to private contractors like Argenbright Security, for instance, which handles screening at 14 airports, including Newark and Dulles, where two of the Sept. 11 flights originated.

In April 2000, Argenbright was fined $1.6 million for hiring dozens of people with criminal records to handle security at Philadelphia International Airport. They still didn't improve. Last month, federal investigators discovered Argenbright was still hiring former criminals.

There is no excuse for leaving airport security in the hands of such poor-performers and lawbreakers, as Bush and House conservatives insist. After all, security is a law-enforcement job. And everywhere else, law enforcement is rightly considered a government function.

Members of Congress have federal officers protecting access to the buildings they work in. Our security is just as important as theirs. We should have federal officers protecting access to the planes we fly in.

Since Sept. 11, what happens at airports is about a lot more than getting Grandma home for Thanksgiving. It's about national security. We trust the Coast Guard, the INS, the Border Patrol and Customs -- all federal organizations -- to protect our borders. Our airports deserve no less.

In fact, in every other aspect of aviation today, there's an acknowledged need for a strong federal presence. The Federal Aviation Administration controls the airports, the planes and the crews. Air traffic controllers, all federal employees, control the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air. Only getting passengers on planes is left in the hands of private companies -- and that's where all the problems are.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate voted 100-0 to take airport security away from private companies and entrust it to federal employees. But President Bush and House Republican leaders stand in the way. Why? Because, says House Majority Leader Dick Armey, under the proposed law, "Everybody that is screening at the airports must be a federal employee and, thereby, a member of the union."

The last thing conservatives want, he insists, is more union workers. First of all, that is an insult to the brave union workers -- policemen, firemen, pilots, flight attendants, postal workers, health workers -- who gave their lives or put themselves in harm's way on and since Sept. 11.

But Armey also masks the real reason for Republican opposition to federal employees. It has nothing to do with unions. It has everything to do with lobbyists.

As detailed in the Wall Street Journal this week, private security firms, afraid of losing their lucrative contracts, have hired big-time lobbyists to roam the halls of Congress promising big contributions to Republicans who will keep airport security in private hands.

And once again, the White House and House Republicans are saying: Whatever big business wants, big business gets. Shame on them.

There's only one way to make airports safer: Make security guards federal agents. But that will only happen if conservatives stop trashing federal employees -- and put public safety over party politics.


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