100 hours of public relations ploys

As part of its 100 hours of action — a public-relations gimmick that is mercifully time-limited — the House rushed through a homeland-security bill of unknown cost and questionable practicality.

The 299-128 victory, with 68 Republicans on board, was indeed a win for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A similar measure, also basically implementing the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, was defeated last year. But as the Democrats, now in their second week in the majority, have quickly learned, if you slap the label “homeland security” or “counterterrorism” on a bill, it’s tough for the minority not to go along.

However, this measure deserved closer scrutiny, and now it’s up to the Senate to exercise the needed skepticism. Consider two provisions: One requires the scanning within five years of 100 percent of the 11 million U.S.-bound containers shipped annually from more than 700 ports. The other requires the airlines within three years to physically inspect 100 percent of all cargo aboard U.S.-bound passenger planes.

The industries involved and the Department of Homeland Security say the money and technology aren’t there to do it, and this bill provides none. Homeland Security, no slouch when it comes to grand plans and big spending, has a $60 million pilot project that, if it works, will by year end scan 7 percent of the cargo leaving six foreign ports.

No price tag was attached to the bill, but it was estimated that the measure defeated last year would have cost $53 billion over five years. Pelosi offhandedly said that she expected airlines, ports and shippers to pick up part of the cost, meaning the public will be paying for it in higher air fares and higher prices for imported goods.

After their 100 hours expire, the Democrats should resolve to subject legislation to three tests: Will it work? What will it cost? Can we afford it? This bill answers none of those.