Playing Politics With National Security

At the beginning of the 110th Congress I had high hopes for a new spirit of comity and bipartisanship here in the United States Senate.  Early on I was hopeful to find opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Unfortunately, this new spirit of comity has been short lived.

The Senate just finished debating the 9/11 bill to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. This was a bill that was supposed to make our country safer from terrorism. If ever there was a debate in which bipartisanship should reign supreme, this should have been it.

Instead, Democrats wrote a provision into the bill that would force the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to collectively bargain with labor unions on the decisions they make. TSA airport screeners are our first line of defense against terrorists who would use our passenger planes as weapons of mass destruction against our nation. Forcing TSA to negotiate with unions before it can carry out decisions that will save American lives creates a national security risk. This should never be considered in Congress, let alone on a bill that is supposed to make Americans safer.

Nowhere in the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations is there a mention of labor unions and TSA has never requested this. In fact, this provision, because it makes our airports screeners less flexible, less efficient and less adaptive could make a future 9/11 more probable. For example, TSA trained tens of thousands of airport screeners in a matter of hours when the United Kingdom liquids terror plot came to light.  This kind of nimble and aggressive training program would not have been possible if TSA leaders would have had to sit down with Big Labor to conduct tedious and time-consuming negotiations.

Even more troubling is the political backdrop that led us to this point. The Associated Press recently reported that Big Labor contributed $65 million to congressional candidates in the last election cycle. Eighty-seven percent of those contributions went to Democrat candidates and helped fuel the Democrat victory in the 2006 midterm elections.

I understand Democrats’ desire to “dance with the one who brung ‘em,” but a Democrat kickback to Big Labor on a national security bill is shockingly irresponsible. Perhaps my colleagues do not understand the stakes. Indeed, their rhetoric and actions to date suggests that this may be the case.

When I offered an amendment to the 9/11 bill that would strip this provision, my colleague Claire McCaskill (D.-Mo.) offered a competing measure that would gut my proposal. In an illuminating give and take between myself and Sen. McCaskill, I challenged my colleague’s assertion that her amendment did not hurt national security.

Because the McCaskill amendment purported to suspend collective bargaining rights during times of “emergency” I wondered whether my colleague thought the Global War on Terror would be considered an emergency. She said no. I also wondered, because her amendment suspended collective bargaining after the identification of a “newly imminent threat,” if she considered al Qaeda a “newly imminent threat.” Again, she said no.

I am afraid that this debate speaks to a much larger point. We are forgetting that we are under a constant threat. We are forgetting that we live under alerts every day. It is not a matter of saying one day is an emergency and one day is not. Nor is it a matter of saying one passenger is an imminent threat and one is not. Our TSA screeners are charged with screening every passenger and being extra-vigilant every day. I am saddened that my Democrat colleagues do not understand this and I am further saddened that they would inject favor-factory-politics into this debate.

For me, this past week’s debate, in which the Senate rejected my amendment and adopted Sen. McCaskill’s, was a significant indication of where the 110th Congress seems to be headed. I still have hope that Republicans and Democrats will work together for the good of the American people and I will constantly be looking for opportunities to do so, but my hope is now tempered by a hefty-dose of political reality. When the majority party in Congress is willing to pay back a major political contributor at the expense of national security, hopes for bipartisanship may be naïve.


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