House GOP blasts TSA for passing on privatizing screeners

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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House Republicans blasted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) last week in a report before voting to reduce the federal agency’s funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a report issued Friday, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure blasted TSA’s decision not to allow the use of contract airport screeners, saying their use at the nation’s top 35 airports could save taxpayers $1 billion in five years.

In a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, passed Friday, the House reduced TSA’s budget by $270 million and approved an amendment to the bill that would block TSA employees from collective bargaining. (In February, TSA decided to allow limited collective bargaining rights to its screeners.) The bill, sponsored by Republican Todd Rokita of Indiana, passed 218 to 205.

After 9/11, airports were given the opportunity to switch to private contract screeners after two years of mandatory TSA screening. In January, TSA Administrator John Pistole halted expansion of the program.

“Administrator Pistole made the decision not to expand the privatized screening program beyond the 16 airports currently participating unless there are clear and substantial advantages to do so,” a TSA spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

House Republicans characterized TSA as bloated and inefficient. According to the report, TSA has hired 137,100 staffers since the agency’s creation and spent more than $2 billion on recruiting and training. It also said private screeners were 65 percent more efficient than their federalized counterparts.

The report compared the cost of using TSA screeners at LAX in Los Angeles with the cost of private screening at SFO in San Francisco. It found that LAX screeners cost an average of $41,208 per year compared with $39,021 at SFO. According to the report, private screening at SFO costs $2.42 per passenger versus $4.22 at LAX.

However, A TSA spokesperson wrote that “best estimates continue to show that private screening contracts cost taxpayers more on average.” In January, TSA reported private screening were 3 percent more expensive than government-run security. A GAO report in March of this year generally agreed with the numbers, although it did note several minor deficiencies in TSA’s methodology.

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The committee report also said there were multiple meetings between union officials and TSA administrators, despite Pistole’s claim that no such meetings occurred.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which TSA screeners belong to, was quick to denounce House Republicans, especially the vote to block collective bargaining rights.

TSA said the reasoning for the halt of privatization efforts was first and foremost security.

“It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network,” the TSA spokesman wrote. “TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our frontline workforce and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security. Further expansion of privatized screening will increase the complexity of this process.”

Jena McNeill, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, disagreed, saying that surely the TSA couldn’t be serious.

“The idea that private screeners are less safe is ridiculous,” McNeill said. “They’re still under TSA supervision, and the flexibility you get with a private workforce probably results in better security, actually.”

Furthermore, McNeill said the timing between the halt of privatization and the introduction of collective bargaining rights pointed to collusion between unions and the TSA.

TSA’s budget is far from finalized, though. The appropriations bill still must go through the Senate.

The full Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure report can be found here.