Dodd cut aviation security funding in July

Mark Hemingway has a long memory for budgeting amendments, which he proves at the Washington Examiner.  With focus returned to airport security, Mark reminds us of how Chris Dodd paid off a political constituency by getting a little pork to the firefighters union that supported his bid for the presidency in 2007-8, which got $10 million in “firefighter assistance grants” from FEMA’s budget.  All Dodd had to do was to get $4.5 million from another source — which turned out to be the TSA’s explosives detection systems:

Now that our attention is focused on airline security measures thanks to the failed airline attack on Christmas Day, it’s worth mentioning that one Senator took money away from aviation security to line the pockets of constituency that supported his presidential campaign in a big way.

Back in July, Senator Chris Dodd, D-Conn., proposed an amendment reducing aviation security appropriations by $4.5 million in favor of firefighter grants — a notoriously inneffective program. In fact, the money was specifically “for screening operations and the amount for explosives detection systems.” The amendment was also sponsored by Sen. Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Carper, D-Del., but Dodd deserves to be singled out here because the firefighters union is a pet constituency of his. In 2007 he campaigned all through Iowa with the firefighters union. It was one of the few distinguishable features of Dodd’s ill-fated presidential bid.

We should put this in its proper context.  The explosives detection systems that Dodd raided to pay off the union have a long history of not working well.  The Airline Pilots Security Alliance, which has a obvious, vested interested in flight safety, notes that the systems deployed at airports now only have a 15% reliability.  Mostly they result in a number of false positives, which close down airports for “hours at a time,” and do little to provide any real security since only a small percentage of people get screened in that manner.  Adding more of the same systems to airports would not make flying any safer, but would certainly make it more expensive and more disruptive.

But that doesn’t mean that we should be cutting TSA’s budget, either, and especially not to fund influence peddling.  If those systems don’t work, we should be looking for systems that do.  Americans are known for our ingenuity, our ability to apply technology to seemingly impossible tasks and discovering solutions.  We put men on the Moon, for Pete’s sake; we can certainly find a reliable way to check airline passengers for explosives and suicide underwear.

We won’t find that solution, though, while politicians like Chris Dodd raid security funding for airports to pay off political supporters.  That’s the real problem with the amendment Hemingway found.  Dodd put his political cronies ahead of flight safety.  That $4.5 million may not have prevented the Christmas Day attack, but using it as a payoff to the union didn’t improve the situation, either.  There is more than just a dollar cost to pork-barrel politics — there is also an opportunity cost.