The Washington Post

Mica revives privatized airport security idea

Transportation Security Officers work at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport. (Michael Temchine/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Employing airline safety officials is considered perfectly appropriate government work to many, but not to Rep. John L. Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

It’s not that he has anything against the transportation security officers (TSOs) who screen passengers and baggage at the nation’s airports. In fact, he says many of them are “hardworking, dedicated personnel.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

But he does have something against their boss. Mica doesn’t believe Uncle Sam should employ those who work to make sure the friendly skies stay that way.

He wants private companies to do that.

This isn’t a new idea for Mica. He has punched this bag before. His latest push came last week with a report he issued along with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The report calls for moving “airport screening operations to private contractors under federal supervision.”

It’s unusual for Republicans to look abroad for examples on how to shape U.S. policies, but on this point the congressmen say: “Almost all Western countries have evolved their airport screening systems to meet current aviation threats through federal oversight of private contract screeners. The U.S. must also evolve to provide the most effective transportation security system at the most reasonable cost to the taxpayer.”

Let me know when Republicans look to Canada and Europe for advice on health care and capital punishment.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airport screening was done by private companies. After that Congress determined that security should properly be done by the government, although private screeners continue in 16 airports. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it’s also cheaper as government work.

Not expanding the private screening program aligns with TSA Administrator John Pistole’s vision “of the agency as a federal counterterrorism network that continues to evolve to keep the traveling public safe. . . .” said Greg Soule, an agency spokesman. “Currently, private screening contracts on average cost the government 3 to 9 percent more than a federalized work force,” he said.

In addition to being a strong advocate for privatized screeners, Mica, who acknowledges that “we are safer today than we were 10 years ago,” is just as adamant against collective bargaining rights for government TSOs. When the Obama administration granted limited bargaining rights earlier this year, Mica called it the “turnover of airport screening to the administration’s union cronies.

Speaking of cronies, Mica reportedly has received campaign contributions from private companies that could benefit from greater private operation of airport screening. “In the past 13 years, he has received almost $81,000 in campaign donations from political action committees and executives connected to some of the private contractors already at 16 U.S. airports,” wrote last year.

His office did not reply to a Federal Diary request for comment on the contributions, but his office told Fox News that the money did not influence his decision-making.

Another interesting point about Mica’s interest in TSA is his committee, despite its name, does not have jurisdiction over the agency. The Homeland Security Committee does.

“The fact is that the Committee on Homeland Security has sole jurisdiction over all TSA security matters. . . . We recognize that Congressman Mica has a longstanding interest in TSA, and we will carefully review his report,” said a statement by committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and transportation security subcommittee Chairman Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.).

Curiously, King and Rogers were not asked to sign on to the report from Mica and Issa.

Mica’s continued pursuit of TSA does reveal some points worthy of greater study. If Pistole views TSA as part of the government’s counterterrorism network, it seems odd that the agency “advertised for employment at the Washington Reagan National Airport on pizza boxes and on advertisements above pumps at discount gas stations in the D.C. area,” according to the Mica-Issa document, which drew from Federal News Radio and Washington Post reports. “It has also been reported to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on multiple occasions that TSA does not consistently conduct criminal and credit background checks on new and existing employees.”

Soule’s response: “TSA routinely advertises for job openings through a variety of avenues ranging from traditional print advertisements to more creative ways to reach a wide audience.”

It’s okay to have pizza eaters checking baggage, but the public wouldn’t feel the same way about convicted thieves and terrorists. But there’s no need to worry about that. According to Soule, “all security officers undergo a thorough criminal background check.”

Setting the record straight

Peter Rosenblatt, who was an ambassador under President Jimmy Carter, writes to say (and the State Department confirms) that a list we recently published of ambassadors killed on duty omitted one. The list was supplied by the American Foreign Service Association. Rosenblatt said his uncle, Laurence A. Steinhardt, “beginning in 1933, served as ambassador to Sweden, Peru, the Soviet Union, Turkey, Czechoslovakia and, until his death in the crash of the Embassy’s Air Force plane in 1950, to Canada.”

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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