By Keith Laing
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee took the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to task Thursday for its warnings about the impact of the sequester and a $50 million uniform purchase it made in the days leading up to the budget cuts.
Prior to the implementation of the sequester, the TSA warned lawmakers that the across-the-board budget cuts would cause longer lines at airport security checkpoints because the agency would have to furlough screeners.
But nearly two months after the $85 million cut took effect, GOP lawmakers said the agency was bluffing when it warned of longer lines.
“Despite what [Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano said, there are no longer lines, there are no furloughs out there,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who is the chairman of the Oversight Committee’s National Security panel.
Other Republicans on the committee were much less charitable about the TSA on Thursday.
“You’re here today because you have more resources than you could possibly need,” full Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “Your agency is constantly known as TSA: Thousands Standing Around. And the reason is you endlessly including more and more people doing less and less.”
Issa said he did not believe the TSA could not avoid furloughs, despite the sequester.
“You’ve made cuts in areas that could potentially endanger America, because you have not been willing to have attrition and right-sizing,” he said. “You haven’t encouraged alternatives to federal employees when you could’ve.
“You’re going to testify about how ‘woe is me, we’re going to be unsafe because we’ve got a little less dollars,’ ” he continued. “Go back to your budget after 9/11 — 2003, 2004, 2005 — move it up in current dollars and I’m terribly sorry, but by 2004, tell me that should’ve been your highest cost time.”
TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski attempted to defend the agency, saying that furloughs were only avoided because Congress gave it more money in the legislation that was passed to keep the government running until the end of September.
“While the reductions required by sequestration will continue to have impacts on the agency, the Fiscal Year 2013 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act provides the TSA with additional funding for Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), which allows it to mitigate to some degree, lessens the impacts on their workforce and operations,” he said.
However, Halinski added that “although initial projected impacts on wait times are likely to be mitigated by the additional funding provided by Congress, travelers may see lines and wait times increase during the busiest travel periods or required surge operations.”
That was not enough to convince Issa, however. The Oversight Committee chairman invoked a recent controversy over a $50 million TSA uniform contract that was signed in the weeks leading up to sequester to argue that the agency had a credibility problem with lawmakers.
“Until people going thru the checkpoints see the efficiency of people with blue uniforms, and I’d like those blue uniforms to be a less expensive the next time you buy them, they’re not going to believe anything you say,” he said.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who has been a frequent, vocal critic of the TSA, joined in to accuse its leaders of “hijacking” the agency from its original mission and turning it into “one of the biggest bureaucracies you’ve ever seen."
“Where is it written,” Mica said when Halinski defended the uniform purchase by saying that TSA is a “uniform agency.”
“Are they sworn personnel,” Mica said. “Are they law enforcement personnel?”
When Halinski did not immediately respond, Mica pressed further.
“C’mon, admit it to the committee," he said. "Can he hear me? Can the witness hear me?”
Halinski told Mica that the uniform contract controversy was the result of “bad timing."
“We looked at this contract because it was expiring,” Halinski said. “It wasn’t Machiavellian sir. We have to have uniforms.”
Republicans on the Oversight Committee were not convinced.
“The only people who believe you are doing all you can for efficiency and safety are people who have not flown,” Rep. Issa said.
Even Democrats on the panel, who sometimes defend the TSA from GOP attacks that it is too large, were at times unimpressed by Halinski’s answers on Thursday.
“You’ve got to anticipate some questions and that’s one you should’ve anticipated,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told Halinski after the barrage of questions he faced on the uniform contract.
Halinski said that, despite the uniform flap, the agency has tried to minimize the impact of its sequester cuts on airline passengers.
“We’ve canceled previously approved training activities, conference and meetings that require travel,” he said.
“Our guiding principles have been to ... preserve TSA’s front operations and other mission-critical activities to the maximum extent possible,” Halinski told the lawmakers at another point.
But Chaffetz questioned the TSA’s behavior before the sequester began.
“I think there were an awful lot of scare tactics out there,” he said to Halinski.