TSA chief: Sequester would impact airport security most during summer

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole told lawmakers Wednesday that the biggest impact of sequestration budget cuts on airport security would come in the summer months of this year.

Other Obama administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, have raised the possibility of the automatic spending cuts causing wait times at TSA checkpoints to increase to as long as four hours.

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Pistole told lawmakers on Wednesday that the largest impacts of sequestration of air travel will not be felt immediately if Congress does not reach an agreement to avert the sequester.

Pistole said the TSA would have to freeze hiring for airport security screeners and cut back on overtime right away, which he said would impact the agency's ability to boost manpower during busier travel times throughout the year.

"When you think about holiday travel and with spring breaks and summer travel coming up, the impact would be more noticeable, I think, longer term as we look at our ability to surge resources to those busiest times," he said.

"If we're not paying overtime ... then we would not have the ability to surge those resources," Pistole continued. "So that's where I think we will see the greatest impact, as opposed to today, for example, not that busy a travel day. As the passenger traffic builds for spring and summer, that's where we'll see the greatest potential impact."

As part of the effort to force more than $1 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, the sequestration law would require $85 billion in reductions to 2013 spending if they are implemented after March 1.

Federal agencies are expected to have to cut about 8 percent of their overall budgets for 2013 if the sequester is allowed to take place.

The comments from Pistole Wednesday came during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security panel.

Republicans on the committee acknowledged the sequester would force federal agencies to make changes, but they accused the Obama administration of exaggerating the impact of the spending cuts.  

"It's one thing to have a serious discussion about resource impacts. But it's entirely another to exploit the sequester for political purposes," the panel's chairman, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), said after referring to the spending cuts as "the president's sequester." 

"Sadly, we're seeing just that almost every day," Carter continued. "My expectation is that the department makes the most of available resources to make a full effort to comply with and enforce the law."

Democrats on the appropriations committee were more readily accepting of Pistole's comments about the impact. They also cast blame for the sequestration squarely on Republicans.

"Threats to our country have not diminished, but the threat of sequestration would significantly reduce resources," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "In just 48 hours, this lazy, frankly, budgetary device would force across-the-board spending cuts throughout the government."

Lowey added that airport security delays that will occur if TSA is forced to make sequestration cuts "will not just be a matter of inconvenience, they will have real economic and security impacts.

"I understand that TSA would be forced to cut its frontline workforce, furlough its nearly 50,000 officers for seven workdays and initiate a hiring freeze," she said. "As a result, passenger wait times at airport security checkpoints will be longer, adding to passenger flight and cargo delays."

Carter said that the TSA's spending would have needed to be reevaluated even if the sequestration were not in place. He applauded the agency's efforts to move to a risk-based airport security system, which pre-dates the sequestration law. 

"The budgetary reality means we cannot simply throw money at the problem," Carter said. "Even as we agree on this real threat to our security, we can't throw money at it. We must make the wide use of our limited resources and apply these resources to activities that have real measurable security impacts."