Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Of Underwear Bombers, Senate Holds, and Lousy Journalism


The Washington Post has a story about a hold Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has placed on President Obama's nominee for TSA Director. DeMint's beef with the nomination, apparently, is that he has no clear statement of position from the nominee regarding unionization of TSA employees (which, being a Republican, he doesn't want). I had sent off a triumphant link to this article to Mithridates and Vercingetorix earlier in the week: AHA! was my thesis. Republicans fiddle while an aircraft [nearly] burns! Who's "soft on security" now, bitch?

But then I thought a little about it, and I realized that as rich and fan-the-flameworthy as this little tidbit is, there's plenty of room for complication here. Complication that can both aggravate and mitigate the "outrage" of the hold.
Look past the obvious politicking here. DeMint holds up the nomination to stick it to Obama, to burnish his pro-management/ anti-union credentials, and to argue points about how Democrats are lousy on national security — the theory being that a union worker is a lazy, entitled worker, and anyone who would tolerate unionization of TSA workers would subordinate the safety of travelers to labor interests. Some points are due to DeMint for the relatively intricate argumentation, which, by requiring the listener to two logical steps, therefore exceeds in complexity most of the rhetoric we citizens get from the Senatorial class. The Post article takes care to present DeMint's side of the question, but of course its very appearance in the paper at this point in time (dateline: December 29, 2009) is a testament to superficiality. The hold has been in place for quite some time now, apparently, but only now does it bear discussion, after Freaky Farouk clears security and sets his lap on fire on an inbound Northwest flight.

But would the result have been any different if Erroll Southers were sitting at the director's desk in TSA HQ, rather than an "acting administrator?" Would galvanized agency officials have taken to their work with such vigor and concentration as to ensure that the Amsterdam airport security officers pulled the bomber off the flight? If not, there's not much fire here to go with this controversy's smoke (if you'll pardon the epxression).

Other complicating questions jump to mind. Can we say for sure one way or the other that TSA workers shouldn't unionize? We don't want our security screeners lazy and entitled, for sure. But we don't want them overworked, embittered and disinterested, either. Policemen form unions. Are we more or less safe, as a result? And even assuming unionization is a bad thing, would Erroll Southers even be in a position to stop it? If the National Labor Relations Act entitles TSA employees to unionize (and I assume there is no specific exception for TSA employees, or DeMint would not have cause for concern), an agency director can't legally stand in their way. If he had DeMint's view of the matter, he might try to litigate the question before the NLRB. But it would be Board members — some appointed by Obama, others by preceding administrations — who ultimately decided the question, certainly not Southers himself. Right?

It seems to me a Better Class of Politician would consider these questions before placing holds on nominations, or for that matter before blaming the Other Guy who placed a hold on a nomination. A Better Class of Journalist would consider these matters, and possibly even write about them, prior to publishing a story tying the hold (even impliedly) to the Christmas Day bombing attempt. Maybe the Best Class of Journalist doesn't write the story at all.

I suppose I'm raining on the parade here. We have a juicy political controversy here, after all. Dems have a basis to attack the GOP — and the conventional wisdom that favors the Republicans on security issues. Under fire now, DeMint gets to stand his ground and draw positive attention from conservatives. Don't you see, Phutatorius? Everybody wins! Pack away your unanswerable questions. Nobody here wants any of your furor-quelling complexity.