TSA official grilled at House hearing on the agency’s budget, foreign-made uniforms

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 18, 2013

The Transportation Security Administration has been a favorite target of House Republicans, and John W. Halinski had the unfortunate role of playing their patsy Thursday.

It was hard for the agency’s deputy administrator to take cover from some of the rapid-fire questions shot at him during a hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security. And in some cases, Halinski didn’t help himself when the Marine veteran could not perform up to the Boy Scout standard of “Be Prepared.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Yet, with 25 years of military service, he’s probably had worse days.

The hearing was called to provide congressional oversight into TSA’s implementation of the budget cuts known as sequestration. It provided a platform for Republican members to complain, among other things, that the Obama administration exaggerated the impact of sequestration and for both parties to ask the important questions good oversight requires.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the full committee, set the Republican tone with stinging opening remarks.

“There has been a pattern of acquisitions of products that don’t work, warehouses filled with equipment that was bought and not used, contracts that promised to do one thing and a billion dollars later they don’t do what they claim to do,” he said.

Issa did not blame TSA’s “hardworking men and women,” yet said the initials could stand for “thousands standing around.”

Halinski was grilled about statements his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, made at a Politico breakfast last month regarding the effects employee unpaid leave days would have on the public.

“For example, on March 4th, Secretary Napolitano stated that airport lines were already ‘150 to 200 percent as long as we would normally expect’ and that TSA would start sending furlough notices immediately,” subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in his opening statement.

He used this as an illustration of how “prior to, and in the wake of the sequester, Secretary Napolitano alarmed the public with sharp rhetoric on multiple occasions.”

While Napolitano did mention cutting overtime for TSA and Customs officers, she placed her comment about long lines in the context of ports of entry, which transportation security officers do not control. TSA officers screen passengers entering airports to catch planes; Customs officers screen airline passengers seeking to enter the country after their flights land.

Regarding furloughs, Halinski said that the TSA anticipates none. In fact, he said the agency is hiring, while restricting overtime.

It wasn’t only Republicans who found fault with the TSA. Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.) said she was “very disturbed” with Halinski’s statement that about two-thirds of each TSA uniform is made outside the United States.

“It’s a slap in the American people’s face,” Speier said.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who repeatedly criticized the TSA when he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, went after Halinski with the vigor of a guard dog.

Mica, who along with Chaffetz complained about the $50 million contract for the uniforms in a letter last month to the TSA, fired one aggressive question after another at Halinski so quickly that he had no chance to answer many. No matter, Mica often provided his own answers. He took a moment to taunt Halinski for not answering, rhetorically asking the staff to check the acoustics in the room: “Can-he-hear-me?”

Halinski’s discomfort was evident on the hearing’s live webcast. When he at one point tried to get in a word, saying, “If I have an opportunity to respond,” Mica spoke right over him.

In a telephone interview later, Mica said Halinski refused to answer some of his questions.

“I gave him plenty of opportunity to respond. . . . I thought I was more than fair,” Mica said.

After Mica finished his initial round of battering the witness, Chaffetz, at Speier’s urging, gave Halinski a chance to answer Mica’s questions. And during a second round of questions, Mica had cooled to the point where Halinski could respond with ease.

But responding isn’t always the same as answering.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) seemed disappointed, if not incredulous, when Halinski did not know how much of his agency’s funding was restored in the temporary budget measure Congress recently passed.

“I don’t have that right in front of me, sir,” Halinski said.

Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the full committee, wanted to be helpful to the administration’s witness, but he felt a need to chastise.

“You’ve got to anticipate some questions,” Cummings instructed, “and that’s one you should have anticipated.” Cummings was calm and gentle, but it was a spanking just the same.

Halinski got the message: “I don’t have those costs right in front of me, sir,” he said. “Next time I’ll be better prepared.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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