WASHINGTON – Hours after taking control of Congress, House Democrats disclosed a plan they said would strengthen homeland security after five years of complaining that Republicans weren't doing enough.
Democrats say their legislation bill would implement the unfinished Sept. 11 commission recommendations that fall under the Homeland Security Committee's jurisdiction.
The bill would require private companies to prepare for terrorism and the government would have to inspect cargo on passenger planes and shipping containers leaving the largest ports. Airport screeners would be given whistle-blower protection, money would be set aside to develop technology for detecting explosives at checkpoints and an appeals process would be established for airline passengers mistaken for terrorists on watch lists.
Democrats have said the Republican-controlled Congress didn't implement the commission's 41 recommendations aimed at improving safety after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The commission itself met a year ago to hand out failing grades to the government, giving an "F," for example, to improving airline passenger screening and homeland security spending for cities considered most at risk of attack.
The bill will be debated and voted on Tuesday — without going through the committee process — as part of the Democrats' "100 hours" plan to quickly accomplish their priorities.
Republicans objected to the speed with which the Democrats are moving.
New York Rep. Peter King, ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to committee chairman and lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. In it, King said that bypassing the committee would contradict an "open, full and fair debate" promised by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"Homeland security is far too important an issue to play politics with, and any new homeland security measure should be given the review and oversight it deserves," King wrote.
The "9/11 Commission" bill isn't filed yet. According to a draft, it would tackle a knotty problem: spending homeland security funds on cities most at risk of terrorist attack.
Currently, the grant formula gives each state 75 percent of the total pot of money before its risk is assessed. The bill would reduce that to 25 percent, except states with large international borders would start off with 45 percent.
Homeland Security analysts have said there are no remaining proposals that can easily be enacted into law because they are politically difficult.
For example, the commission recommended that oversight of Homeland Security be given to a single committee. The Homeland Security Department said it reported to 86 committees and subcommittees and gave more than 4,000 briefings in 2005-06. But soon after House Democrats unveiled the 9/11 bill, they announced that the Transportation Committee would share jurisdiction over two Homeland Security agencies: the Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
One problem for congressional Democrats in fulfilling their promise is that some of the commission's recommendations to change foreign policy — such as supporting Pakistan and reforming Saudi Arabia — don't fall under the purview of Congress. Those aren't addressed in the bill.