Lowey: Aviation security bill 'is our responsibility to the public'
Nita Lowey is in her seventh term in the United States House of Representatives, serving New York's 18th district. She is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and is a member of the Democratic Caucus Task Force on Homeland Security. She joined the CNN.com chat room from Washington.
CNN: Good morning and welcome to CNN.com, Rep. Nita Lowey. Thank you for joining us today.
LOWEY: Well, good morning, and thank you for asking me to join you. I look forward to talking to people who are interested in security on the airlines.
CNN: Perhaps the biggest debate on the aviation security security bill is whether or not security screeners should be federal workers. How would that change the quality of security screenings?
LOWEY: Currently, you have people working for the airlines in security, working in private security firms, who are making between $5.25 and $6.75 per hour [with] limited benefits, and the General Accounting Office reported last year that turnover rates for screeners ranged from 100% to over 400%. Iin that same report, it noted that starting wages at airport fast food restaurants are higher than airport screeners receive.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why did it take an event like September 11 to happen before we stepped up security?
LOWEY: That is a good question. In fact, there were reports ten years ago, four years ago, recommending federalization of workers, and the Republican leadership just let it stand there, without taking action. This is why I think the Republican bill is a status quo bill. We've had experts recommending federalization of the work force several times in the last 10 years. This is the time to do it, and we must do it now.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are we going overboard on air safety while the terrorists move on to other methods?
LOWEY: We have to do it all. We have to make sure our airlines are safe, our trains are safe, our bridges and tunnels are safe, our shopping malls are safe. We have to improve Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) regulations, make sure our borders are safe. But it took us three days to provide financial relief to the airlines, but in seven weeks, we haven't acted to make our airlines more secure.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any concerns that Republican donors from large private security firms are lobbying Bush to prevent federalization of security personnel?
LOWEY: Oh, this is a wise listener. This is exactly what happens. Tom Delay meets with them and urges them to talk to members of Congress and lobby them. That's exactly what happened. We would never consider contracting out the services of the U.S. Customs service, the border patrol [or] local police departments, and it makes no sense to do it with airport screeners. It's a special interest lobbyist that has held this up, and Tom Delay is the cheerleader. We can't let this be delayed by Delay any longer.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Representative Lowey, have you looked at the way Israel structures its airport security? Do they use contract services?
LOWEY: That's very interesting, because Israel does have a system that is different, but the important factor here is that the Senate passed a bill 100-0, a bipartisan bill. This should not be a partisan issue. If there were changes to be made, it should have come to the floor earlier. We're saying it's time for action, time for federal air marshals on every flight, [to] secure the cockpit door, [to] screen every single bag and person that gets on every single airplane, and the measure that we want to pass is the one that passed the Senate unanimously. While the system that you mentioned is better than the failed U.S. screening system, Europe still has an unacceptably high failure rate, and faces the same problems as the U.S., according to a GAO study.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Bush doesn't want to federalize the security screeners because we won't be able to fire them. What does that tell us about other federal employees like the CIA and FBI?
LOWEY: Are we ready to privatize the police, the firemen, the INS and the Border Patrols? I don't think we're ready to do that. It seems to me that the most important responsibility we have for safety is making sure that those involved are professionals, well trained, well paid. That's why the Federal Aviation Administration in its 1998 report to Congress reported that replacing the current screeners, the ones who last about 3 or 4 months, with federal forces, would produce a major benefit. In the Democratic House bill, there are hire and fire provisions.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is racial profiling, in your opinion, a necessary part of airport security?
LOWEY: Racial profiling is not an acceptable practice in the U.S.A. Each person who goes through the screening process should be screened carefully.
CNN: Is there universal support for air marshals aboard planes and how would that plan be implemented?
LOWEY: There must be an air marshal or national guardsman aboard every plane, and this it seems to me is a priority not only of the Congress, but the majority of the American people.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will these workers automatically become federal employees or will they have to apply using the same standards other federal workers had to meet. (i.e. civil service exams, etc.) What about background checks for these people before they become federal employees?
LOWEY: I would expect that the bill would enforce just exactly what you're saying, background checks, making sure that these people, as we do with other law enforcement people, are members of a security force.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: As a flight attendant, I can't understand why any member of Congress or the public would do anything that would prevent us from being as safe as possible.
LOWEY: I agree with you, and in fact just this morning, we had a group of flight attendants at the Capitol that stood with us, and made it clear that we have to pass this bill. We need to have air marshals on every flight, secured cockpit doors, screening of every bag and person on the flight. And we need the appropriate equipment to screen the baggage going into the hold.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are you concerned about meeting these priorities given the grim financial figures released by the Congressional Budget Office just before the September 11 attacks?
LOWEY: We don't have any choice. As members of the Congress of the United States, we have a responsibility to make sure our planes are secure. We have to do this. If we are not putting in place these safety measures, if we don't pass this bill, the public won't fly, and [that] will create more grim economic situations. The public not flying will affect our economy more than anything else. They aren't taking business trips or vacations, and if we want them to fly, we have to reassure them that our planes are safe.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?
LOWEY: I would just urge you all to call your members of Congress, and tell them to vote for the Aviation Security Act, which passed the Senate unanimously. We have a responsibility after September 11 to make sure that flights are safe. This is our responsibility to the public.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Rep. Nita Lowey.
LOWEY: You're very welcome.
Rep. Nita Lowey joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Wednesday, October 31, 2001
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