Polygraph ban must include government

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to ban the use of polygraph tests by private businesses. House members voted 254-158 to disallow the use of polygraphs because they are “unreliable,” subject to abuse by employers and “a threat to workers’ guarantees against job discrimination.”

Considering the reasons behind the ban, it’s rather interesting that federal, state and local governments are exempted, as well as private employers who have sensitive connections to the government. House members apparently think polygraph tests suddenly become reliable when it’s a government employee being tested rather than the janitor at the local drugstore.

And it’s really intriguing that anyone would think the government is any less likely to abuse the use of polygraph tests than is a private company. In that respect, most people would probably trust a vice president of Marshall Fields more than they would trust a patronage supervisor in Cook County.

It certainly isn’t true that government employees don’t need to be protected against job discrimination. The government isn’t exactly inherently fair in its employment selections. People employed by the government might be even more subject to discrimination—based on political affiliations or ideologies—than are people employed in the private sector.

The Reagan Administration supports the use of polygraphs, both in private businesses and in government. Some time ago, Secretary of State George Shultz refused to submit to a polygraph test, creating something of a public relations problem for the president, for at the time Shultz’s essential argument was that if the President didn’t trust him, he shouldn’t have appointed him in the first place.

If it is true that polygraphs are unreliable, and no better than “little black voodoo boxes” as one Representative said, then they shouldn’t be used at all. The government doesn’t have any more right to subject citizens to an unreliable evaluation of their honesty than does a department store owner.

If Reagan really thinks it’s necessary to have a “lie-detector” test given to government employees, he should tell the Defense Department to get busy and find a reliable, fair method of testing. The polygraph must go.