A bad idea that won't die

A bad idea that won't die

It was a startling display of good sense in an unlikely place - the United States Senate. In a 58-38 vote, senators rejected the latest congressional effort to require the scanning of all containers before they arrive in the U.S.

The surprisingly lopsided vote was made possible by 12 Democrats and one independent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who voted against a scan-all amendment by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Give them a round of applause.

Schumer's amendment would have aligned the Senate with a provision that the House inserted in its bill to implement 9/11 Commission recommendations. Never mind that the commission did not recommend scanning of all containers. Scan-all is a good politics, and that's what counts.

Demands for 100 percent scanning would be harmless if they didn't divert attention from more effective ways to tighten port security. But they do, and unfortunately the issue isn't dead. It still could show up in a House-Senate conference report.

Votes on Schumer's amendment had scarcely been tallied when nine senators, 21 representatives and a group of Sept. 11 victims' survivors asked Wal-Mart, the nation's largest importer, to quit opposing the scan-all bill. The letter was sent under auspices of WakeUpWalMart, which has a different ax to grind.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., also is pushing for a scan-all requirement. He said that if the Secret Service and Capitol police can scan all visitors to the White House and Capitol, there's no reason not to scan all import boxes.

Good sound bite, but Menendez's comparison was apples-to-coconuts. There's a huge difference between scanning Washington tourists and scanning millions of 40-foot containers filled with God knows what. And if scanning is so easy, why stop at ports? Why not require it for all vehicles entering the New Jersey Turnpike?

If the TWIC card's gestation has taught us anything, it's that technology development cannot be legislated. Yes, scanners are being used on a small percentage of U.S.-bound boxes at Hong Kong, but it's still a nascent technology - and even if all boxes could be scanned, where would they find the workers to look at the scans?

As Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., pointed out, the scan-all concept is popular politically but would cripple trade. "The technology, manpower and funding do not yet exist to make this effective security policy, especially on an arbitrary deadline," he said.

The House bill and Schumer's amendment show no such misgivings. Both proposals would give the Department of Homeland Security three years to require scanning of all containers from most countries with which the U.S. has significant trade, and five years to require scanning of all import containers.

If the required technology can't be developed in time, the House bill would permit a one-year extension. And if the technology still isn't available after that . . . well, everyone should be safely re-elected by then.