TSA uproar spills into Congress

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Massive airport security lines across the country are frustrating travelers and creating pressure for Congress to do something about the problems at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

With summer travel season approaching, lawmakers have been scrambling to schedule hearings, meet with TSA officials and explore their legislative options.

{mosads}The uproar is being further fueled by a social media campaign, “I Hate the Wait,” that has been drawing attention to overwhelmed security lines where passengers have at times waited for hours, missing their flights and getting stranded at airports overnight.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has called on TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger to resign if he does not effectively mitigate travel disruptions by Memorial Day weekend.

Congress already approved a $34 million funding shift in TSA’s current budget to hire and train nearly 800 new screening officers and provide overtime for current ones.

But some travel advocates worry that the help might not come soon enough, with one of the busiest travel weekends of the year just around the corner.

A House-passed bill to expand TSA’s PreCheck program remains stalled in the Senate, and many lawmakers are reluctant to provide significant funding boosts to the unpopular agency.

“You can acknowledge a problem, commit to solving it and even pass legislation, but that doesn’t mean that help is going to be on the way by next weekend,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “The lines will likely get worse before they get better.”

TSA officials have been warning for months that airport lines would likely spike as summer travel increased.  

That’s partly because the agency has trimmed back its screening staff in recent years, anticipating that its PreCheck program would expedite the normal screening process. But that decision has proved disastrous because not enough passengers have enrolled in PreCheck.

The screening workforce has been reduced by 12 percent over the last five years, at a time when the number of travelers has increased by more than 11 percent.

The TSA is also contending with enhanced security efforts after the Brussels airport terrorist attack, which has contributed to longer wait times.

“These kinds of lines are unacceptable,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “The administration proposed cutting back. They thought they could do it with less, and they discovered that’s not the case.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said his panel would hold a hearing on the “suddenly out-of-control” issue next week.

McCaul added that he is meeting with airport executives and authorities later this week to discuss potential ways to tackle the issue, such as providing greater staffing flexibility to the TSA.

One legislative proposal that has been floated is a measure from Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) that would expand TSA’s PreCheck program, which allows flyers who have undergone background checks to move through expedited security lanes without taking off their shoes or removing their laptops from bags.

But the $85 enrollment price, the hassle of going to an enrollment center and the lack of general awareness about the program have prevented more people from signing up, although more people have signed up in recent days.

About 7.3 million people are enrolled in the TSA’s trusted traveler programs, and the agency is aiming to have 25 million passengers in PreCheck by the end of 2019.

Katko’s bill would speed up that effort by requiring TSA to develop a process for approving marketing materials and partnering with the private sector to encourage enrollment. It also would ensure that participants receive expedited screening even when the PreCheck screening lanes are not open.

The measure passed the House by voice vote last year, but Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has placed a hold on the bill in the Senate.

“It is critical that the Senate unblock the bipartisan legislation that I’ve passed through the House so that we can make travel more efficient,” Katko said in a statement. 

Sasse supports PreCheck but wants to see the fees that the TSA collects from the program come under congressional oversight through the annual appropriations process.

“Washington’s bureaucracies rarely reform themselves — pressure needs to come from public oversight and, without Congress’s power of the purse, that’s an uphill battle,” Sasse said in a statement. “I’m not interested in letting any bureaucracy circumvent Congressional oversight and make itself judge, jury, and tax collector.”

Language similar to Katko’s bill was folded into the Senate’s long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) along with a provision to increase the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs, which can also help expedite the screening process at airports. The House has not yet decided whether to consider the Senate legislation or move on its own FAA bill.

Airport wait times and TSA understaffing could get addressed in an upcoming appropriations bill for fiscal 2017, but a fresh injection of cash would not come until the end of September — and that’s assuming Congress doesn’t enact a clean, short-term spending bill.

The TSA might call on Congress to repurpose additional funding in the meantime. Some lawmakers, like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), worry that throwing extra money at the problem won’t address the underlying issue, which is that the TSA is struggling to retain its screening staff.

“You don’t just flip on the light switch and suddenly hire 500 more agents,” Chaffetz said. “Think of it like a bathtub: They’ve been draining out the bottom faster than they’ve been pouring it in the top.”

 Some lawmakers have called on the airline industry to help solve the problem, arguing that baggage fees have caused more flyers not to check luggage and thus clog security lines.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to a dozen airline companies urging them to let passengers travel with their bags for free this summer.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said if he were chairman, he would haul in the airline executives to grill them about mounting airport wait times and baggage fees.

“I’m sure they’ll resist it with everything, but what’s in the interest of the traveling public?” Nelson said.

Tags Bill Nelson Edward Markey Jason Chaffetz John Thune Mark Kirk Richard Blumenthal

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