House bill defers to Senate on security against terrorism
The House has approved a massive bill aimed at increasing the security against terrorism.
THE U.S. House acted with ease and speed yesterday in approving a lengthy bill that, if it were to become law, would overburden and probably shut down the nation's sea ports. The House Democratic leadership bypassed the hearing and amendment processes during the first week of the new Congress, thrusting upon the Senate the heavy lifting.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman dutifully opened hearings on the Senate version of the bill in his homeland security committee as the raw House version gained approval in the lower chamber. The Senate should accept the responsibility shirked by the House, because much of the bill is worthwhile.
The 277-page House bill would base antiterrorism funding on risk assessment rather than population and improve emergency communications for state and local first-responders, coming closer to fulfilling all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Most of the commission's recommendations were enacted in the last Congress.
The bill requires that all cargo on passenger jets be inspected for explosives within three years and that all maritime cargo bound for the United States be scanned for nuclear bomb components within five years. The previous Congress set up pilot projects to determine the feasibility of such a system.
No technology exists for such comprehensive cargo screening at a reasonable cost, according to Homeland Security Department officials. The cost of screening air cargo is estimated at $3.6 billion over the next decade, and the cost of ship cargo inspections would be even more, running in the tens or even hundreds of billions.
"Inspecting every container could cause ports to literally shut down," said a department spokesman. Cognizant of the technological limitations and monetary ramifications, the 9/11 Commission did not recommend such comprehensive screening.
Dogs or screening devices now are used to inspect 30 percent of air cargo on passengers planes; only 5 percent of U.S.-bound ship containers are X-rayed. Homeland Security is researching ways to increase air and sea cargo inspections.
Most inspections consist of examination of manifestoes and other paperwork, while physical inspection is limited to containers considered to be high-risk. Those searches are based on suspicions about the sender, the destination or the claimed contents.
Lieberman and Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Commerce Committee, have said they want the Homeland Security Department to complete its tests on the new technology before requiring inspections of 100 percent of cargo. That logic is absent from the House bill.
Also absent is the 9/11 Commission's recommendation for the streamlining of congressional oversight over homeland security. Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge estimated that he spent 40 percent of his time testifying before Congress.
The commission described strengthening congressional oversight as "among the most difficult and important" recommendations.