Who Says Congress Doesn’t Work?

Washington tackles TSA Nazis, overseas call centers and saving the USPS

There are more than 5,600 bills winding their way through the legislative maze that is the 112th U.S. Congress. And in between the latest efforts to take away American’s civil liberties, give the Border Patrol the authority to trample (literally) all over 36 environmental regulations, and force a 1,700-mile-long oil pipeline down the throats of citizens in six states, it’s possible to find a bill or two that actually does something useful. Here are three.

Reigning in the airport Nazis
H.R. 3608 Stop TSA’s Reach In Policy (STRIP) Act,  sponsored by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.  Introduced December 8, 2011.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t very much like flying these days. It’s bad enough you have to risk deep-vein thrombosis to sit in a seat designed for a 10-year-old (which is fitting, because stewardesses who were once as obliging as airborne geishas now come off more like kindergarten teachers scolding paste eaters), but for the privilege of getting to that seat, you’re forced to navigate the Kafkaesque maze of degradations known as airport security.

We’ve all been there, lined up in stockinged feet like cattle and herded through chutes while specially trained “Behavior Detection Officers” probe for signs of nefarious intent with scripted small talk and dubious glares.

And that’s just those of us who are lucky enough to get through without incident.

Barely a week goes by without news of some overzealous screener with a Napoleon complex groping a senior citizen, accosting a child or humiliating a passenger in the guise of national security. I’m fortunate enough to report that I’ve never lost my dignity at the hands of an airport screener; but I’ve lost a lot of patience, and on one occasion, a very nice and very expensive sealed bottle of whiskey. (I watched three screeners argue over who would get to take my potentially dangerous substance home with them that night.)

But you don’t have to look far to find lots of people who have lost their dignity. People like Mandi Hamlin, of Texas, who, in 2008, was forced to use pliers to remove her nipple rings at the request of male agents before being allowed to board her flight. Or Alaska State Rep. Sharon Cissna—a breast cancer survivor—who had to look for alternate transportation when she refused to let a screener touch her mastectomy scars during a “routine” pat-down.

Since introducing enhanced pat-down procedures last year things have gotten worse. Under the new guidelines, Transportation Safety Officers (as they have been called since 2005, when they were given shiny new badges and new police-like uniforms) are authorized to perform discretionary full-body frisks on passengers as young as six years old.

Last November the American Civil Liberties Union began hosting a special website for people to log complaints against the TSA and within a month received more than 900 reports ranging from “unnecessary groping of passengers’ breast or genital areas” to “lack of privacy during pat-downs.”

On Friday, in the wake of the latest TSA scandal—which involved two women in their eighties who, in separate incidents, were subjected to what any reasonable person would call unnecessarily invasive searches (one woman was reportedly asked to produce her colostomy bag)—more than two dozen House Republicans introduced a bill to knock the TSA down a notch.

The Stop TSA’s Reach In Policy Act would prohibit TSOs not trained as federal law enforcement officers or eligible for federal law enforcement benefits from wearing police uniforms or wearing a police-like metal badge. It would also drop the “officer” moniker from their title.

Some on the left have interpreted the GOP’s lashing as a little more than a guileful attack on a federal agency that these same lawmakers would ultimately like to see privatized. I say, so what?  It’s not like we’re talking about dismantling the TSA here, just offering the public a more realistic perception of the agency and the men and women working for it. Airport screeners are not cops and have no authority to arrest or detain, but I’ll bet a lot of people reading this didn’t know that. After all, they sure look pretty cop-like.

Keeping call centers stateside
H.R. 3596 U.S. Call Center and Consumer Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y. and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. Introduced December 7, 2011.

Much as U.S. manufacturing jobs were once shipped overseas, Silicon Valley has seen a mass exodus of talent over the past decade as companies moved first their programmers, then their developers and finally their call centers to Central Europe and Asia (in the case of call centers, primarily to the English-speaking countries of India and the Philippines.)

In 2010 those two countries collectively pocketed more than $10 billion in call-center revenue alone, much of it from the U.S, but some of these jobs have been trickling back into the U.S. since cloud computing began enabling more people to work from home. With the aim of accelerating that shift, the bipartisan U.S. Call Center and Consumer Protection Act would require U.S. companies to give 120 days notice before they move call-center jobs overseas, and it would cut them off from federal loans or loan guarantees for a full five years after they’ve left. It would also give consumers the right to opt to talk with someone in the U.S. when they call a customer service line.

In an added bonus for consumers, the bill would require customer service lines to connect callers to an actual person (imagine that!) instead of jockeying them from one automated option to the next. What will they think of next?

Needless to say the Communication Workers of America—which represents 700,000 employees, more than 150,000 of whom are customer service reps—has come out in strong support of the bill. According to CWA Chief of Staff Ron Collins:

“Americans are fed up with good-paying family supporting call-center jobs here in the United States being shipped overseas so the one percent can make a little extra money. This legislation does not prevent them from moving if they want, but it prevents them from gaining access to our tax dollars while they do so.”

Saving the nation’s second-oldest institution from extinction
S. 1853 The Postal Service Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT. Introduced November 10, 2011.

On December 5th, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe announced that come spring the U.S. Postal Service will shutter 3,700 retail facilities, more than half of its 500 mail-processing centers, and end next-day mail service in an effort to address a $5.1 billion deficit in 2011. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 employees will lose their jobs as a result of the cuts. Donahoe is also seeking congressional approval to cut out Saturday delivery, which he says will save the agency some $3 billion annually.

Contrary to popular belief, the Postal Service’s problems are not tied to the rise of email or declining volume, but a requirement in the 2006 Postal Service Accountability and Enhancement Act that obliges the USPS to pre-pay 80 percent of its retiree health benefits for the next 75 years. The payments are to be made at a highly accelerated rate that amounts to a total cost to the USPS of more than $5 billion each year through 2016. By contrast, most private sector companies pre-fund just 30 percent to 50 percent of future retiree health care costs, if they do so at all, and no government agency is required to pony up as much as the USPS for future benefits. (You can read my article on the problems at the USPS in last Sunday’s Philadelphia Tribune).

The installment for 2012 was due at the end of September, but the USPS received an extension; it now has until Friday to come up with the cash or face default (unless it gets another extension, which it is hoping it will).

While some of us may have the luxury of writing off the Post Office as a quaint reminder of days past, for lower-income consumers, in particular, the USPS still provides a vital service. These are people who are more likely to live check-to-check and depend on one-day delivery to get bills in on time. Many also rely on post offices to get money orders in neighborhoods that are short on banks without relying on expensive check-cashing places.

Bernie Sanders’s bill would allow the Postal Service to engage in some creative accounting and apply roughly $7 billion in overpayments the agency made to the Federal Employees Retirement System to its current liabilities. The bill would also end the insane pre-funding mandate created by the Postal Service Accountability and Enhancement Act.