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Bipartisanship Frames Transportation Security Overhaul

In what Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) called “a good day for legislation,” the House Homeland Security Committee unanimously approved the Rail and Public Transportation Security Act of 2007 (H.R. 1401) on Tuesday.

The comprehensive bill, which passed by a roll call vote of 30-0 after a lengthy markup, would require the Department of Homeland Security to implement increased antiterrorism protections for rail and ground transportation systems.

“This could have been a very contentious piece of legislation,” ranking member Peter King (R-N.Y.) said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who chairs the transportation security and infrastructure protection subcommittee, and Lungren, the subpanel’s ranking member, led the effort to revamp the existing strategy for ground transportation security. Jackson Lee characterized the legislation as an attempt to provide “ongoing and continuous oversight in transportation security, specifically in the areas of rail and mass transit.” She called it “an important step in the backdrop of the” deadly Madrid train bombings of 2004.

Security improvements mandated by H.R. 1401 include developing a National Rail and Public Transportation Security Plan; augmenting risk assessment and identification efforts; increasing interagency and interdepartmental intelligence sharing; and authorizing grant programs for rail, bus, and public transportation systems.

Though most of the markup was bipartisan in nature, several issues — whistleblower protections, Freedom of Information Act provisions and passenger privacy protections — spurred heated debate among committee members.

Lungren and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) presented amendments to clarify whistleblower protections granted to security and intelligence agency employees. Both Lungren and Davis asserted that whistleblower protections specified in the bill conflicted with the Waxman-Davis Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2007 (H.R. 985), which is scheduled for consideration by the House on Wednesday.

Assuring that both committees were working together, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) guaranteed that the language between the two bills did not conflict. Markey asserted that proposed rollbacks to protections would “gut the rights of workers if the government claims state secret.” Both amendments failed by voice vote.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) contended that sensitive information resulting from security assessments would be too easily accessible under existing FOIA allowances. Brown-Waite offered an amendment to prohibit DHS from releasing risk vulnerability and security training data to the general public.

Arguing that FOIA provisions protect information vital to homeland security, Jackson Lee said that information-sharing was crucial to preventing future attacks. Brown-Waite’s amendment failed by a roll call vote of 12 to 16.

The last point of partisan disagreement involved two amendments offered by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). Dent proposed mandating automated terrorist targeting systems at border inspection lines and immigration offices and requiring passenger and crew manifests for vehicles arriving in or departing from the U.S.

Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) argued that automated identification systems encroached on privacy rights of U.S. citizens. Thompson also said that demanding passenger manifests would overwhelm rail systems beyond operation. Both of Dent’s amendments failed by roll call votes of 12-17.

The committee also considered how H.R. 1401 would affect private citizen and transportation-sector employee rights.

Lungren recommended prohibiting third-party action against the Department of Transportation. He emphasized that allowing third-party litigation against transportation providers could delay or prevent critical decision-making.

Democrats disputed Lungren’s claim and said that the threat of third-party intervention would encourage efficient government action. Lungren’s amendment failed by a voice vote.

Allegations of unfair employee termination within the industry prompted lawmakers to collaborate on a solution to protect employees without compromising national security. Lundgren and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) presented an amendment, which passed by unanimous voice vote, requiring DHS to define disqualifying offenses for future transportation sector employees.

Eight other amendments aimed at increasing individual security measures passed by voice vote. The committee approved a full substitute amendment by voice vote without objection, and referred H.R. 1401 favorably to the floor.

The House is expected to consider the legislation on the floor before the April recess.

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