By Jeff Plungis
WASHINGTON — The congressman who held 22 hearings over a year and a half that tracked public backlash against the Transportation Security Administration says he's ready to offer legislation to save the agency from itself.
"The truth is this is a very dangerous world," Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Transportation Security Subcommittee, said in an interview. "TSA not surviving isn't an option. We have got to make it, though, smarter and leaner."
The Alabama Republican said he plans to offer a proposal next year, and its chances will improve if Republicans win control of the Senate in the November elections. The legislation would be shaped to force change onto a reluctant agency and congressional Democrats while blunting calls from within his own party to eliminate the TSA altogether, he said.
The legislation would give airports more power to hire private contractors for screening and make it tougher for the TSA to refuse, Rogers says. It also would scale back passenger pat-downs; require changes in how the agency buys screening equipment; mandate periodic reassessments of security procedures; and possibly eliminate the agency's list of items that can't be carried onto planes, he said.
"There's not another department inside the U.S. government that interacts with the American public more intimately and on a more regular basis than the TSA," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the homeland security and counter-terrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "As long as every conversation about the TSA starts with a horror story, we're not going to have the agency we want."
Congress has an important oversight role and TSA has to be able to work with lawmakers, agency Administrator John Pistole said in an interview.
"If something goes wrong today at Dulles, I don't think people will be blaming Congress," Pistole said, referring to Washington Dulles International Airport. "They might, but they'll definitely be looking at TSA. It's good to have ideas and suggestions and everything, but ultimately somebody's responsible for it — and TSA's responsible."
The Senate has been more satisfied with TSA. In contrast to repeated House hearings under Rogers, the Senate Commerce Committee, headed by West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, has held one general oversight hearing in the past two years. Despite "growing pains" in TSA's 10 years of existence, the agency has become leaner and more nimble under Pistole, Rockefeller said in a statement.
"Every agency must efficiently and wisely use taxpayer money," Rockefeller said. "Congress will continue to conduct oversight of TSA's programs and policies to make certain the agency has the resources necessary to meet evolving threats."
The size of TSA's workforce, and especially the number of airport screeners, has been a particular focus of Republican lawmakers. About $5.3 billion of the TSA's $7.8 billion budget and almost 95 percent of its 55,722 employees are devoted to aviation security, according to the Homeland Security Department's most recent budget request.
House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, another Republican eager to scale back TSA, wrote language into this year's Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill to force TSA to approve airports' applications to hire private screening companies unless it can demonstrate that the change wouldn't improve security.
Before that bill passed, Pistole had ordered a freeze on moves to private screeners besides the 16 airports where they had been approved. Pistole said he still isn't convinced that private companies will reduce costs, and said federal screeners can respond more rapidly to changing security threats.
"The notion that all-privatized is all better — I have a philosophical difference with him on that," Pistole said. "Whether every airport is privatized or TSA provides the security, the taxpayer is still paying."
TSA compared costs at airports using private screeners versus government employees in a 2011 study, concluding that private screeners cost 3 percent more, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Orlando Sanford International Airport, Sacramento International Airport and three Montana airports have sought to switch to private screeners since the FAA bill passed. The TSA has given the airports preliminary approval to seek proposals from prospective contractors.
The shortcoming in that approach, according to a staff report published this month by Rogers's subcommittee, is that most airports don't want to risk the TSA's wrath by seeking permission to replace the agency's screeners. An alternative, Rogers said, would be to create a list of pre-approved screening contractors that airports could choose from, leaving the TSA to supervise security.
Private screeners, employed at the time by the airlines, failed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents TSA screeners.
Companies may underbid to win contracts that will appear at first to save money, Cox said. Experience throughout the government shows that costs rise as contracts grow more complicated, he said.
"This country has been there and done that," Cox said. "We saw what a disaster it was."
Airports will support Rogers' approach on screeners, said Deborah McElroy, executive vice president of policy and external affairs at the Airports Council International-North America, a Washington-based trade group. Some airport managers prefer contractors while others think their relationship with the TSA is fine, she said.
"We strongly believe that airports should make the decision," McElroy said. "If the airports decide to do it, there shouldn't be barriers."
TSA has wasted a great deal of money through procurement mistakes, such as the $29.6 million purchase of 207 explosives- detecting "puffer" machines that didn't work in an airport environment, Rogers said. Machines intended to read boarding passes and check for fraudulent documents may cost more than $100 million without a clear justification of the cost, according to the report by Rogers' staff.
"We waste a lot of money jumping through too quickly to buy the latest and greatest shiny thing," Rogers said.
Wanting to change TSA is easier than doing it, said Kip Hawley, who ran the agency under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009.
A lawmaker proposing an overhaul would probably be invited to a closed-door briefing about the hundreds of known al-Qaida operatives and how a small chunk of C4 plastic explosive could down an airplane, Hawley said. It's easier to add security steps than eliminate them, he said.
Still, the public perception of the TSA, dominated by stories of encounters between low-risk passengers and overzealous agency officers, has created tension in airports that hurts security, Hawley said.
"It's a cycle of pain that appears endless," Hawley said.
No congressman wants to be held responsible for changes to security that backfire, said Jeff Price, an aviation consultant with Leading Edge Strategies in Denver, Colorado.
"If you're the one who successfully made the switch, and there's another terrorist attack, not only are lives lost, but you can kiss your career goodbye," Price said.
Rogers said there's more risk in not giving TSA direction.
"It's like a teenager," Rogers said. "Their limbs are growing faster than their coordination. It was understandable that they would have some problems, just like teenagers do. We're at the point now where people expect more maturity."