Like a heat-seeking missile, House Republicans are fixed on the Transportation Security Administration, and they are being helped by a small, but attention-grabbing, group of its officers.
With their actions, the officers seem almost eager to trash the agency’s reputation.
The latest group of transportation security officers (TSO) aiding and abetting attacks on the agency’s character are the 42 employees facing discipline on charges that they did not conduct random, secondary screenings at the airport in Fort Myers, Fla., last year.
On June 1, the TSA recommended that five employees face dismissal and 37 be suspended on allegations that they did not do the checks over a two-month period.
“What does it take to get fired at TSA?” Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the Homeland Security transportation subcommittee asked TSA Administrator John S. Pistole at a hearing last week.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the security officers, said in an interview that supervisors told the officers not to do the random checks.
The five recommended for termination were supervisory transportation security officers, responsible only for checkpoint security, and not the overall Fort Myers operation. But the top TSA official at the airport, his deputy and another manager are among those who face suspension.
Forty-two disciplinary actions — involving 15 percent of the Fort Myers staff — at one time is huge, but it’s not a TSA record. A year ago, the TSA moved to fire more than 30 Honolulu International Airport employees, out of 48 facing disciplinary action on allegations of improper screening of checked baggage.
Incidents like those at Fort Myers and Honolulu can smear the agency in a more significant way than the occasional over zealous pat-down. Yet, as egregious as those more serious situations are, they were not the main focus of the hearing. Instead, Rogers targeted the size of the TSO staff, which numbers almost 50,000.
Rogers said he “strongly” believes the TSA “is bloated with personnel.”
“It could reduce its ranks by 30 percent to 40 percent and still be able to do the job just as effectively,” he said. “I also believe that if we had that leaner, smaller workforce, the public would have greater confidence, because the public is upset when they go in the airport and see all these people standing around doing nothing. And then the ones they do interact with seem unprofessional.”
That’s a bad rap on the officers, who screen airline passengers and baggage, but it fits nicely with the larger Republican agenda to cut the size of government and complements a GOP push for greater privatization of the workforce. The TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have been the subject of a series of critical hearings called by the House Republican majority.,
In response to Rogers’s call for deep personnel cuts, Pistole, at first, was vague. “Well, that’s a very challenging proposition from a number of standpoints,” he said.
Rogers pressed: “You’ve got an image problem in the Congress. Half the Congress wants to just get rid of the department, because they think it’s useless. . . . Do you agree that you could dramatically reduce your workforce . . . and still do the job just as effectively, if not more professionally and effectively?
Pistole: “No, I don’t agree with that. That’s a huge number.”
Gage dismissed as nonsense Rogers’s claim that the TSA is bloated.
“TSA is fairly efficient,” he said. “I think it really has an outstanding record. . . . This is not a job you can try to do on the cheap.”
With a starting annual salary of $25,000 for TSOs, Uncle Sam is getting help on the cheap for a demanding job dealing with sometimes-disagreeable passengers.
But that angle wasn’t one the panel explored. The thrust of the hearing was clear from its title: “TSA’s Efforts to Fix Its Poor Customer Service Reputation and Become a Leaner, Smarter Agency.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.), the subcommittee’s top Democrat, objected to the title because she said the majority of the officers are “committed to the service of this nation.” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) told Pistole: “I think the title is unfair to you.”
Richmond urged Pistole to do customer-satisfaction surveys. Pistole said his agency’s unflattering reputation developed because “in large part, we’re defined by anecdotes.” Out of 525,000 calls to the TSA contact center this year, Pistole said, about 7 percent were complaints.
Seven percent isn’t much, but it equals 36,750 calls, and that’s a lot of anecdotes. Small children and old ladies getting searched doesn’t make for good TSA press. Neither did last month’s frisking of Henry Kissinger. But he wasn’t upset. Pistole said the former secretary of state issued a news release and sent Pistole a letter saying the officers treated him “with respect and courtesy.”
Pistole probably doesn’t get too many letters like that from passengers getting a pat-down.
“By definition,” he said, “our job can be confrontational.”