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CONGRESS IS WAY OFF BASE ON AIRLINE INDUSTRY BAILOUT

The most generous slant that can be put on Friday's passage of the $15 billion bailout bill for the American airline industry is that the House and Senate acted out of panic and exhaustion.

There was ample justification for Congress to guarantee a $10 billion loan under certain restrictions for the airline industry very soon. But there was no need for Congress to actually give away $5 billion in cash, taxpayers' funds, to an industry that has been so predatory and so badly managed and irresponsible.

Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York both spoke in favor of the hastily stitched-together and ill-conceived bill, but Schumer seemed to offer more arguments against it than for it.

For example, he said the new low-fare airlines that have only recently begun reviving traffic at regional airports like those in upstate New York are made newly vulnerable by the generosity to the major airlines.

Schumer also observed that Amtrak, which was pressed into service when the airlines were shut down, got nothing from the measure.

But he and Clinton, who had quickly pried $20 billion in rescue money for New York City from Congress and the Bush administration, were in no position to nitpick. And Clinton appeared emotionally and physically wiped out from her four treks back and forth from the holocaust at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

Only a handful of members appeared to husband the stamina and intellectual will to resist the stampede to lavishly reward an industry so wanting in provision to protect passengers and, as it turned out, community lives.

Notable among this tiny squad was Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda. When the bailout plan first appeared 10 days ago, the industry's pals wanted to ram the bill through without a debate and even without a vote.

The key promoters of this first attempt to slide the bailout bill through with unanimous consent were the two House members who received the most campaign money from the air transport industry in 1999-2000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. They are James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, and the panel's new chairman, Republican Don Young of Alaska.

Oberstar received $105,000, and Young, who was not yet chairman, got $76,350.

The top Senate promoter was John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, which over sees the airlines. The air transport industry gave McCain $178,295 for his campaigns.

McCain is a major opponent of Amtrak subsidies. Amtrak is not allowed to make campaign contributions.

The first attempt to pass the bill was blocked by LaFalce.

LaFalce had been through this before. He initially got in the way of a proposed 1979 giveaway to ailing Chrysler, an act that got him in trouble with United Auto Workers members in his district.

LaFalce opposed the Chrysler bailout until "conditionality" was established, meaning a package of sacrifices by Chrysler's stockholders and members of the UAW and a structured plan to repay the entire guaranteed loan.

Friday, the airline bill returned to both houses. And it won sweeping majorities from rank-and-file members who were confused, or just plain pooped out, or unduly influenced by campaign money and the blandishments of their friends in the airline industry.

LaFalce was in a small minority who voted no.

His first objection, one reflected by fellow Democrat William O. Lipinski of Chicago, was that it contained no provision to federalize the baggage inspectors and security personnel staffing the metal detectors.

The House Republican leadership made sure that provision, co-sponsored in the House by Lipinski and Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, was stripped out of the bailout bill. The Rules Committee also blocked a provision protecting low-cost airlines.

The bill, while requiring no sacrifices from airline executives making as much as $35 million, provided no income assistance or medical insurance for the 100,000 airline industry workers who are losing their jobs.

Worse, the situation permits the airlines to make service cuts and layoffs that would never be allowed by the government or the unions in ordinary circumstances.

There is no reason to give the airlines money. Wall Street is flush with cash to loan. All that is needed is the government guarantee to make them creditworthy. That borrowing would have given New York City's financial markets a desperately needed shot in the arm.

What the airlines really deserve are investigations into how they converted a 1986 donation from the Reagan administration into creating monopolies at regional airports, undermining entire local economies. President Reagan gave the airlines takeoff and landing slots at major hubs. These slots are still worth billions.

Congress also ought to find out how the airlines' cheapskate practices at passenger checkpoints and their opposition to sky marshals contributed to the hijackings in the first place.

But you won't see Oberstar, Young and McCain leading the parade for those probes.

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