House Panel Focuses on Legislation to Secure Rail, Mass Transit

A rail and mass transit security bill tops the Homeland Security Committee's agenda, but the House panel also may revisit chemical and border security measures enacted in the 109th Congress.

In a speech Monday, Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he plans to introduce a bill next month that would "federalize" public rail and mass transit security and to mark up the measure in mid-March.

"The biggest dilemma that I think that we have is that we don't have a real federal mandate," he said. He noted the huge discrepancy between the amount spent for security per passenger on commercial airliners and that spent per passenger on public rail and transit.

Thompson said his bill would focus on "vulnerability assessments and security plans, ways to share strategic information, the development of security training programs and funding for various initiatives."

He specifically cited rail tunnels as an area of concern. "Some tunnels that many passenger trains travel through, we have to provide some additional security," Thompson said. "We'll look at Penn Station [in New York City] as one situation."

Thompson also intends to revisit the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations measure (PL 109-295), which gave the federal department the authority to regulate chemical plant security. Thompson thinks it did not go far enough.

"The most controversial provision is pre-emption," Thompson said, referring to concerns that the federal chemical plant security measure will override state laws. Although the new law is silent on pre-emption, draft Homeland Security Department regulations would allow the federal government to pre-empt state laws.

New Jersey is often mentioned as an example of a state with tougher chemical security standards than those that the federal government may eventually implement.

But Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council industry group, said that critics of the new law are getting ahead of themselves. "A lot of people are sort of jumping out by saying that this is going to wipe out New Jersey," Jensen said. "That has yet to be determined."

Thompson also reiterated his longstanding opposition to the construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, which was authorized last year (PL 109-367).

He criticized the Homeland Security Department's award of a multibillion-dollar border security technology contract, which he said relied too much on industry for a strategy to control illegal immigration. "The department should have its own idea and put it out in the marketplace," he said.

New York Rep. Peter T. King, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, offered measured praise for Thompson's speech to the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, an audience that included lobbyists, reporters and department officials. "On balance, I think it was a very positive speech," King said. "My main objection would be any attempt to scale back the border fence."

Thompson promised robust oversight of border security, as well as scrutiny of the Homeland Security Department's troubled US-VISIT program, which is intended to track visitors as they enter and exit the United States. He complained about the department's recent move to put the program under the direction of George W. Foresman, undersecretary for preparedness.

The department has said the move of US-VISIT makes sense, because the program's impact will cut across many agencies, and Foresman will have responsibility for improving department-wide integration under a recent reorganization.

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. ©2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.