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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Legislators Get Up Close and Personal With Air Security

Congress: As frequent fliers, they draw suggestions from pilots, screeners, passengers. They hope to get a bill to Bush by Thanksgiving.

November 09, 2001|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) says pilots have passed him notes on airplanes urging Congress to swiftly pass an air-travel security bill.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) says that one pilot took him into the cockpit to show him an ax that could be used against a hijacker.

And Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) says that on a recent flight, he asked firefighters why they were sitting apart instead of next to each other. They told him they all took aisle seats to deter any possible hijackers.

Members of Congress are frequent fliers on the nation's commercial airplanes. Some California lawmakers log more than 100,000 miles a year. Their trips to home districts in the weeks since the Sept. 11 hijackings make them lightning rods for complaints and eyewitnesses to gaps in air safety.

"You can't fly as much as we do and not observe things," DeFazio said this week as congressional negotiators worked to resolve their differences on an air-travel security bill.

President Bush is expected to announce additional measures today to increase security at airports, including a broader role for National Guard troops. And 17 Republican senators signed a letter Thursday declaring that they had "strong misgivings" when they voted for the Senate bill, approved 100 to 0, calling for federal agents to take over as screeners at airports.

Although they are trying to send a bill to the president by Thanksgiving, the House and Senate are divided about whether government workers should screen passengers and baggage. The Senate supports federalizing the job. The House favors increasing federal oversight but leaving it to the administration to decide whether to use public or private employees or a mix.

"We're stymied by one issue," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.).

During the debate, lawmakers have used their personal experiences to bolster their arguments.

"Where real life intersects with legislation, it results in members of Congress becoming more passionate," said Marshall Wittmann, a conservative political analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Airline safety is something that they all feel passionately about, and all feel they're experts on because they are the ultimate frequent fliers."

Lawmakers cited their personal observations of near-empty flights in the days after the terrorist attacks as a reason that Congress rushed through a $15-billion airline bailout bill.

During the recent House debate, Gephardt waved a note and said, "Every time I get on an airplane now I get a note from the pilots."

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) recalled that a pilot asked him and other lawmakers to stay aboard a plane after it landed at Los Angeles International Airport so he could offer his ideas on how to increase security.

"He came out with the ax," Sherman recalled Wednesday. "He says, 'This is inadequate for defense.' It's not even designed to be a weapon. It's designed to help them get out of the cockpit in case of a crash. He was advocating that licensed pilots be allowed to carry firearms." Both bills would allow properly trained pilots to carry weapons.

Sherman said that lawmakers fly so often that they have special insight into security problems. "Nobody has to explain that to us. It's not like the mohair subsidy."

Some lawmakers who personally witnessed security lapses before and since Sept. 11 have used their experience to bolster their case for creating a new fore of 28,000 federal screeners.

Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, one of eight House Republicans to support putting federal workers in charge of the screening process, said his decision was reinforced by his first trip to Washington's Dulles International Airport after the terrorist attacks.

One of the supervisors of the screeners saw his congressional ID and asked if he could hear her out. "She had been there 12 years as a supervisor and told me, 'This security is still a joke.' "

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also recalled during one debate taking a 3-foot-long pipe in a cardboard tube to Washington's Reagan National Airport in August. It was part of a home improvement project.

"It went through the X-ray machine, and they didn't say anything, nothing," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

During the House debate on the bill, Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) complained about the "absurd" system for checking baggage.

"I have flown out of Dulles now five times in the last few weeks, and three times I have been selected to have my luggage screened for explosive devices," he said. "I am not sure what kind of profile I fit. Sometimes I think that maybe I am being screened because I am a member of Congress and they want to convince me that the system is working."

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