Targeting the TSA

One nasty partisan battle in Washington that gets less attention than it deserves is the ongoing fight over the Transportation Security Administration, which heated up recently after House Republicans voted to slash the TSA’s funding and a key House committee issued a report concluding that private contractors could handle airport security more efficiently than federal employees. It would appear that many Republicans have forgotten why airport screening was federalized to begin with.

Before 9/11, airport security was handled by private contractors, whose performance was considered suspect by aviation experts long before they allowed 19 hijackers with knives and box cutters to board planes that fateful day. The TSA was created two months later to give the government more oversight, but some GOP lawmakers have been grumbling ever since — and the grumbling has turned to action in the wake of two decisions by new TSA chief John S. Pistole.

In January, Pistole decided to limit a program that allows airports to opt out of federal protection and instead contract with private security companies; the 16 airports already in the program could continue, but no others could join without demonstrating “clear and substantial advantages.” In response, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, vowed an investigation of the program. A week later, Pistole annoyed GOP lawmakers even more by announcing that TSA screeners would be granted collective bargaining rights.

Mica’s probe was released last week. GOP staffers compared screeners at San Francisco International Airport (which uses contractors) with their counterparts at Los Angeles International Airport (which uses TSA screeners), and found the former were more efficient. According to the report, screening costs about $2.42 per passenger at SFO vs. $4.22 at LAX. But the report says little about which airport is safer. Furthermore, a comparison of just two airports isn’t conclusive proof of anything.


Meanwhile, House Republicans took out their ire on the TSA by cutting $270 million from its 2012 budget in a homeland security bill approved last week; if that’s approved by the Senate, the agency would have to lay off 10% of its screeners. The bill also would take away collective bargaining rights for TSA workers. Cutting screeners would mean longer lines. And GOP fears over the extremely limited rights being granted to the TSA workforce — they can’t bargain on such matters as compensation or security procedures, only such picayune issues as shifts and transfers — are overblown.

The best argument for broadening the private screener program is that contractors are now subjected to much stricter oversight than they were before 9/11. But we’d need a lot more evidence from the other 15 airports that use contractors before we’d want to see the program expanded.