The House yesterday took its first step toward establishing a program that would require members and their staffs to be tested for illegal drug use.
House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B. Solomon (R-N.Y.) proposed the House develop a drug-testing program comparable to the one used by the executive branch. "We should be no different than others in ensuring a drug-free workplace," he said.
Drug testing of executive branch employees began in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan ordered agency heads to screen workers in "sensitive positions." Neither the House nor the Senate has had a uniform drug-screening policy, although congressional staff members who need security clearances are asked about any use of illegal substances as part of background checks.
The House approved the drug-testing program when it voted, 226 to 202, to make about 20 changes to the rules governing the 105th Congress.
Under the provision, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) will have the authority to set up the drug-testing program after consulting with the House minority leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). No timetable was set up to begin the tests, but Republicans hope to start the program by the end of February.
The House action comes after several members, including Solomon, voiced concern in recent months about rising drug use among teens, and followed an election-year flap over drug-testing procedures at the White House, where a handful of staff workers had drawn Secret Service scrutiny because of past drug use.
Drug tests in the executive branch cost about $10 million each year, and cover about 1.8 million civilian government workers in 120 federal agencies.
A major part of the program, random drug tests, targets about 397,000 government jobs, usually those involving employees who handle classified documents or hold jobs related to public safety, such as law enforcement officers or truck drivers.
The latest data available, for the period between October 1994 and March 1995, showed the executive branch conducted 16,988 random drug tests, 118 of which were positive. The federal program relies on urine samples for its tests, which cost an average of $57 each.
A Health and Human Services program official said that since the program began, less than 1 percent of workers have tested positive for drugs. But the official said the program serves a larger purpose of deterring drug use, since employees know they are at risk for testing, especially in cases involving "reasonable suspicion" or accidents.
The House, as part of the rule changes, also approved what Republicans called a "truth in testimony" provision aimed at individuals and organizations that receive federal money through grants and contracts. The change will require persons appearing before committees to list the source and amount of the funds they or their organization have received from the government the last three years.
The provision grew out of an effort by House Republicans last year to curb "political advocacy" by nonprofit groups that receive federal grants. Last year's effort, pushed by Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) and others, failed after being criticized as too broad and as unconstitutional.