‘Good enough’ is not good enough to lead TSA

The security failures of the Christmas Day bombing attempt once again remind us that the TSA administrator is one of the most critical homeland security positions in the federal government. The individual nominated to fill this position must be, without any doubt, the most highly qualified person available.

He or she must have the appropriate experience and qualifications necessary to lead a massive bureaucracy — one that has ballooned to more than 60,000 employees and must be flexible enough to respond and adapt quickly to ever-changing security threats.

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I have significant concerns whether the president’s nominee, Erroll Southers, has the extensive high-level administrative or executive experience necessary to effectively lead such a large agency, particularly one that has been in turmoil and rests within a dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While Mr. Southers is clearly well regarded and has reportedly performed competently in previous work, the fact remains that he only served in a deputy capacity in his Los Angeles Airport Police force and California State Homeland Security positions. Being well liked is not enough to successfully lead a large, entrenched but critically vital agency such as TSA.

Recent reports have also revealed inconsistencies in Mr. Southers’s prior statements before Congress related to his censure by FBI superiors for the inappropriate use of a law enforcement database. Mr. Southers only corrected the record after his answers were questioned by Congress. If confirmed, Mr. Southers would be entrusted with access to all the private information and databases maintained by the DHS. Therefore, this is no trivial matter.
Further calling into question Mr. Southers’s fitness for the post is his failure or refusal to respond to Senate questions about his position on collective bargaining for TSA screeners. Granting collective bargaining rights would be a devastating blow to our national security and would violate a long-standing bipartisan agreement that TSA screeners, while they could organize and join unions, would not be subject to Title V personnel protection provisions should they fail to perform their security responsibilities. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is one of the most unionized federal agencies with over 25 collective bargaining units, ranked a lowly 214th out of 216 best places to work in the federal government (TSA was 213th). Bestowing collective bargaining rights for screeners is a recipe for putting an already inefficient bureaucracy into slow motion and stalemate.

Furthermore, collective bargaining is incompatible with the flexibility required to wage the war on terrorism. The administration should not wager our national security in a political payback to big labor.

Finally, I am also concerned that filling this vacancy has been a low priority for this administration. The nomination of Mr. Southers occurred on Sept. 17, 2009, almost eight months after the president’s inauguration and after 326 other nominees of the president were sent to Congress and confirmed.

The posts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxics Substances, and the Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics were in place well before anyone was nominated to lead the TSA.

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Perhaps the administration had difficulty identifying a nominee willing to accept the position of TSA administrator.  Reports from the security community lead me to believe that far more qualified individuals may have refused the post.

However, whether the administration failed to make filling this position a priority, or whether the problem was finding someone to accept the nomination, I believe fundamental changes are necessary to eliminate the revolving door at TSA. The next administrator will be the fifth in just eight years. In addition to ensuring that the most highly qualified person is in charge at the TSA, it is also critical that some long-term stability be introduced to the position.

I believe Congress should now consider significant changes with the administration and operation of TSA.
While I am sure that Mr. Southers is a personable individual, there are legitimate questions about his qualifications and fitness for the position of TSA administrator. He has not held a top-level management position in a large organization, he has previously exhibited questionable judgment given his inappropriate use of law enforcement databases, and he has refused to provide Congress with answers to basic questions as part of his confirmation process. The TSA needs proven leadership and we cannot settle for “good enough.”

Mica is the ranking member on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.