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House OKs Ban On Most Private Polygraph Tests

November 5, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House, heeding charges that lie detectors are no more reliable than ″a black voodoo box,″ voted to prohibit their use by most private employers despite protests that the restriction would needlessly penalize business.

Before taking the 254-158 vote Wednesday night after more than 10 hours of heated debate, the House rejected a proposed substitute, 242-169, that would have allowed continued polygraph tests for private employees under strict new federal guidelines intended to prevent abuses.

The proposed ban exempts federal, state or local governments, and private contractors doing intelligence work for the government.

Polygraph tests also would be allowed for private security guards assigned to airports, nuclear power plants and other sensitive facilities, and for drug company employees with access to controlled substances.

Lie detector tests are given to an estimated 2 million workers each year, mostly by private companies.

A similar bill containing several more exemptions was approved by the House last year by a somewhat narrower margin, but it died in the Senate. The 1987 version was opposed by the Reagan administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but favored by unions and civil liberties groups.

House supporters of the ban, sponsored chiefly by Rep. Pat Williams, D- Mont., complained that privately administered lie detector tests constitute an invasion of workers’ rights of privacy and a potential violation of guarantees against discrimination in hirings and promotions.

Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif., floor manager of the ban proposal, declared that ″the polygraph is no more effective for discerning truth and dishonesty than a black voodoo box.″

Martinez said that even a polygraph error rate of 10 percent would mean 200,000 to 300,000 Americans might be falsely accused and their jobs endangered each year.

But the bill’s opponents defended the tests as a valuable weapon against employee thefts that cost American business an estimated $40 billion annually.

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the bill should be called ″the criminal protection act.″

And Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., said it was ″the height of hypocrisy″ to ban lie detector tests as too unreliable for private employees but to condone them for government employees.

″Either polygraph results are valid or they are not,″ Rep. Harris W. Fawell, R-Ill., said. ″You can’t have it both ways.″

The defeated substitute, sponsored by Reps. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., and George ″Buddy″ Darden, D-Ga., would have provided employees and job applicants with several legal safeguards against polygraph abuses.

Under their plan, testing would have been voluntary only, and the results could not have been used as the sole basis for employment decisions. They would have forbidden examiners to ask irrelevant personal questions, such as an employee’s sexual preference or religious views.

The House rejected a series of opponents’ proposals for exemptions for a wide variety of employers, including nursing home operators, pest control companies and federally insured or regulated banks and securities institutions.

The House also defeated a proposal to allow testing of employees with access to stolen property or facilities where such crimes as theft, embezzlement, industrial espionage or bombings have occurred.

Rep. Stephen L. Neal, D-N.C., referring to federal guidelines included in the opponents’ ill-fated substitute, said it would make just as much sense to set government standards for ″the dunking stool, the wrack and the firing squad.″

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