Columnist

The federal workforce was targeted on two fronts Tuesday as House Republicans pushed to limit employees’ annuities and for greater privatization of airport security screening operations.

After a sometimes passoniate debate, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved, with a 22 to 16 vote, legislation that would make federal employees pay more for what in some cases would be lower retirement benefits.

The Securing Annuities for Federal Employees Act, which also covers members of Congress, would, among other things, increase employees’ contributions to their retirement program by 1.5 percent over three years, decrease the multiplier used in annuity calculations and eliminate a supplement most federal workers who retire after this year are scheduled to receive.

That was covered in more detail in Tuesday’s Federal Diary, so let’s move to the Homeland Security subcommittee hearing that examined efforts to expand the Screening Partnership Program (SPP). It allows private companies to do the screening rather than federal transportation security officers. Sixteen airports, mostly smaller ones, now have private screeners.

The House and Senate have already passed legislation designed to facilitate the use of private contractors at airport screening posts, which is why Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, said “this hearing comes a day late and a dollar short.”

Moving to private operations means the screeners would no longer be federal employees. “Once an airport joins SPP,” explains the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Web site, “Federal screening positions are abolished.”

Protecting federal jobs clearly is not the priority of a House majority that wants to reduce the size of government and promote the role of the private sector wherever possible. Even for an anti-terrorist agency.

“Rather than trying to insulate a giant federal workforce, TSA should be working to strengthen and improve the private screening program and make it more cost-efficient so that U.S. businesses can take on a more meaningful role,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the transportation security subcommittee, in his opening statement.

Rogers and other Republicans on the panel are not happy with TSA Administrator John Pistole because shortly after taking office he reviewed the private screening and testified, “I did not see any clear and substantial advantage to expanding the program.”

He added that he is committed to maintaining the contractor screening where it is in place and is open to new applications “where a clear and substantial benefit could be realized.

“That being said,” he continued, “TSA remains a U.S. government counterterrorism agency.”

So that raises the question — is it appropriate to contract out the duties of a government counterterrorism agency? Particularly when the legislation allows foreign ownership of the private screening companies?

Stephen Amitay, legislative counsel for the National Association of Security Companies, whose members would like to get TSA contracts, scoffed at the notion that protecting against terrorism at airports is “inherently governmental,” the term used to describe work that should be left to government employees.

“There is virtually no legal, policy or practical support for the argument that passenger and baggage screening is inherently governmental,” he said in his prepared testimony.

He went on to list locations that are protected by contractors, including nuclear facilities, NASA launch sites and Defense Department locations requiring top-secret clearances. Rather than reassuring, his list indicates how conservatively, perhaps too conservatively, “inherently governmental” is defined.

Under the Screening Partnership Program, airports can “opt out” of using federal screeners. “Opting out means opting in to the lowest bidder, which is not how homeland security should operate,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the federal screeners, in his prepared statement.

Why should the profit motive have a role in guarding a nuclear site? Imagine privatizing parts of the FBI or the Border Patrol. There are many appropriate roles for federal contractors in government work, but conducting counterterrorism operations isn’t one of them.

The push for private contractors is curious because they generally cost government more money, says Pistole. Private screeners have the same training, follow the same regulations and must be paid at least as much as federal screeners.

“What we do not know is why the Republicans seem to be willing to pay more for the same services or how doing so will create jobs,” Thompson said.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at washingtonpost.com/joe davidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.