GOP chairmen joust for TSA jurisdiction

Two Republican committee chairmen seem to be engaged in a turf war over jurisdiction of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The tussle between Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Pete King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, was evident in a vote last week on TSA’s airport screenings.

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Because the airport checks are carried out by the Homeland Security Department, oversight of the TSA falls to King’s committee, making it the lone transportation agency Mica doesn’t have jurisdiction over.

Mica put forward an amendment last week that could change that.

His amendment to cut $270 million from TSA’s budget for airport security screeners passed on a close 219-204 vote, with King voting against. 

If Mica’s provision became law, TSA would be required to hire private companies to perform airport screenings. With the Homeland Security Department out of the picture, Mica could argue that oversight of the TSA is a matter for his committee, not King’s.

“I would love nothing more than to have the jurisdiction,” Mica told Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House  Appropriations Defense subcommittee, during debate last week over the TSA funding amendment.

“I do not have the jurisdiction,” Mica continued. “I do have jurisdiction for some oversight, which we have assumed.”

The differing votes highlight a longstanding battle between the two men over who should oversee the airport security agency, which has been a target of criticism for new screening procedures that involve pat-downs and full body scans. 

Neither King’s nor Mica’s offices responded to requests for comment Monday. 

King has made clear he wants to retain jurisdiction, too — and claim more of it.

“This letter reiterates the critical need for the House of Representatives to immediately take action and consolidate congressional oversight over the Department of Homeland Security,” King wrote with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) in a Feb. 12, 2010, letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that was obtained by The Hill.

“We write to urge you to work with the congressional leadership and provide information necessary to help consolidate homeland security jurisdiction in 2010,” they wrote. 

Rogers chairs the House subcommittee on Transportation Security, which falls under King’s Homeland Security Committee.

The pair pointed out in their letter to Napolitano that the commission created to study the Sept. 11 attacks, which spawned the airport security agency, recommended creating “a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.”

The TSA has cited the lack of jurisdiction for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in declining to send representatives to testify before the panel, for which Mica has criticized the agency sharply.

“As outlined in the Rules of the House of Representatives, TSA is specifically excluded from certain jurisdiction and oversight by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure,” TSA Assistant Administrator for Legislative Affairs LaVita LeGrys wrote in an April 12 letter to Mica, also obtained by The Hill.

The letter was written after the Transportation chairman called for TSA officials to testify over delays in implementing biometric pilot licenses Congress ordered the agency to produce. In it, TSA cited the specific House rules that outline oversight authority of TSA.

Mica responded during the April 14 meeting without TSA represented by accusing the agency of “stonewalling” lawmakers.

“I had hoped we could get some response from an agency that for some reason does not want to … participate,” Mica said then. “I’m very disappointed. We have this huge amount of taxpayer money being expended [on pilot licenses]. I think we could get some response from the responsible [agency].” 

Napolitano has appeared to come down closer to King’s position than to Mica’s on the issue of TSA jurisdiction. Napolitano responded to King’s February 2010 letter with a letter of her own in April of that year calling for one committee to oversee airport security functions.

“I have deep respect for Congress’s constitutional role and believe that appropriate oversight is essential to further development and mature the department,” Napolitano wrote in an April 21, 2010, letter obtained by The Hill.

“I am concerned, however, that overlapping hearings, briefings and requests for information from so many different committees take important resources and personnel away from fulfilling our day-to-day operational responsibilities, long-term goals and our critical mission,” the Homeland Security chief wrote.

Napolitano did not say explicitly which panel she would prefer, however.

Former House Rules Committee staff director Muftiah McCartin said in an interview with The Hill that as long as there has been a TSA, there have been turf battles in Congress over it.

“Whenever you try to rearrange jurisdiction in the House, it’s a bit of a bloodbath,” said McCartin, who was a House staffer for 34 years through 2010.

McCartin, who also worked for the House Appropriations Committee and the Office of the Parliamentarian, said TSA creates a particular challenge for determining jurisdiction because its functions touch so many areas of committee concentration. 

“At the beginning of every Congress, Homeland Security tries to get some sort of additional jurisdiction,” McCartin said. “This was a pretty carefully crafted compromise among [several] committees with jurisdiction, with Homeland Security, Transportation and Infrastructure and Ways and Means all giving up chunks of jurisdiction.”