House Reverses Position on Cargo Screening

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The House of Representatives defeated a measure Wednesday that sought to ensure that all cargo on passenger planes is screened, after having voted earlier this year for the measure to be included in next year's Homeland Security spending bill.

The House voted 226 to 198 against re-inserting the cargo screening amendment into the 2004 fiscal year bill and sending it back to a conference committee with Senate negotiators.

The Senate version did not include the provision, and Senate conferees successfully fought to exclude it from the compromise legislation. One of the measure's strongest opponents was conferee Sen. Ted Stevens (search), R-Alaska, whose state is a major cargo hub.

"Today, the Republican majority in Congress refused to close a gaping loophole in our airline security plan,” said Rep. Ed Markey (search), D-Mass., who co-sponsored the original amendment with Rep. Chris Shays (search), R-Conn.

“Republicans said screening cargo is too expensive. But if we can find $856 million on upgrading and repairing airports in Iraq, why can't we spend money to screen cargo here at home, where it's needed to protect airline passengers in the U.S.?"

The Markey-Shays amendment would have forced Congress to divert federal funds away from any Transportation Security Administration (search) cargo security plan that did not incorporate full screening of air cargo by the end of 2003.

Shays and Markey say the current "Known Shipper" program is not enough. This program relies on trusting the shipper rather than screening the cargo. The problems with this system became clear last week when someone shipped a box through UPS containing bottled water, fabric softener and cabbage, and then called in the routing number, claiming the package was a bomb.

UPS was forced to ground the plane carrying the package.

"They say we have the Known Shipper (search) program and don't need physical screening. But the young man who shipped himself undetected from New York to Texas used one of these Known Shippers," said Markey, referring to another recent security breach.

The White House and airline industry representatives have been lobbying against the measure, saying the high cost to implement it makes it impractical.

According to the General Accounting Office (search), approximately 22 percent of air cargo transported in the United States is carried aboard passenger planes. Cargo on passenger airlines amounts to one-fifth to one-third of revenue and provides a significantly higher profit margin for airlines than do passenger tickets.

Captain Lee Collins, a security representative for the Coalition of Air Pilots Association (search), warned of the danger of a successful attack on air cargo, saying that the potential cost of failing to guarantee security is "huge."

He said an attack on air cargo could have a much worse economic effect than a hijacking because of the nationwide economic ripple effect on business and industry.

Markey Press Secretary Israel Klein said the battle is not over yet.

"We're still fighting to get all cargo put on passenger planes screened," he said.