A proposal by the Bush administration to raise airline security fees by $1.5 billion a year took a major hit when the U.S. House of Representatives decided that none of the money designated to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could come from raising the fees.
House lawmakers approved by a wide margin, 363-65, an amendment prohibiting airline security fees from being raised to fund DHS programs. Introduced by Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), the amendment is a major victory for the airline industry and an expression of the widespread opposition on Capitol Hill to raising airline fees in the midst of an industry downturn. Powerful senators in the House and Senate have been laying the groundwork to defeat the airline security fee increase, reasoning it couldn't come at a worse time (ABR, April 25).
The move by the House in opposing an increase in airline security fees follows a similar decision by the House Budget Committee earlier this year. It was able to express its displeasure with the proposed fee increase by inserting a single sentence into a report accompanying a budget resolution capping discretionary spending. That sentence said: "The resolution does not specifically assume the enactment of the President's proposed increase in aviation security passenger fees."
In approving the DHS funding bill, the full House did very much the same thing. Hooley's amendment, now Section 519 of H.R. 1817, says "none of the funds authorized" for DHS may be "derived from an increase in security service fees . ..."
The question now is whether the Senate will approve a DHS funding bill and whether it too will contain similar language against the proposed security fee. Congressional observers believe the Bush administration proposal to increase airline security fees will face opposition in the Senate as well.
The Senate's version of a DHS funding bill would originate in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Jen Burita, a spokeswoman for the senator, noted that the committee has been holding hearings to examine DHS, with the goal of producing a reauthorization bill. The House-passed bill funding DHS programs will be considered during those hearings. But it is hard to lay out a timetable for completing work on a DHS bill because Collins' committee also is working on a number of other issues, including chemical and port security, postal reform and terrorism financing, according to Burita.
The House Committee on Homeland Security sent the DHS funding bill to the full House without delving into the security fee controversy - even though Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) opposed the White House plan to raise an additional $1.5 billion per year from airlines. The increased fees would be like new taxes, and once they've taken hold it would be very hard to get rid of them, Cox said. Like other lawmakers, he thinks that protecting passengers is a national security issue and that the airline industry should not bear additional financial burdens at this time.
The $34 billion DHS funding bill approved by the House is the nation's first comprehensive homeland security reauthorization legislation. It funds all DHS operations for fiscal year 2006, including airline security functions of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
It was not clear whether Cox would be able to get a funding bill through the House this year. He failed to do so last year, but his committee was elevated this year from a "select" committee with muddled jurisdictional boundaries in the last Congress to a full committee with more clearly defined oversight of DHS.
"This comprehensive legislation is the first of what will be annual authorizations of all of the programs and policies of the Department of Homeland Security," said Cox. "This annual authorization process, which is the same that is followed for the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, will ensure the close working partnership between the Executive and Legislative Branch that is necessary to the fulfillment of our national security mission."
But the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security called the passage of H.R. 1817 a "half-hearted effort." Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the bill is a "weak attempt" to fully protect the nation. He introduced a Democratic substitute bill that would have provided for $6.9 billion more in funding than the president's budget. Included in his substitute measure was a provision to provide $115 million to study whether commercial aircraft could be protected from shoulder-fired missiles through ground-based technology. The development of a ground-based system to protect airplanes from terrorist attacks could save the airline industry billions of dollars (ABR, May 9).
In a related development, Sen. Collins sent a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff on May 25 urging him to establish a system to prescreen international passengers before they board flights. The letter also was signed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee.
"In recent weeks, two international flights have been diverted to Bangor, Maine, as a result of passenger information matching an individual record on the No Fly List," the letter said. "We are sure you would agree that these incidents demonstrate the current passenger prescreening system is not working. Not only does it create a serious security vulnerability, but it imposes tremendous costs on air carriers, taxes government resources, inconveniences hundreds of passengers, and has a ripple effect on the travel and tourism industry."
Intelligence reform sponsored by Collins and Lieberman, signed into law last December, directed DHS to establish a passenger prescreening system.