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The U.S. congressman who desperately wants to tear apart the TSA

Mar 27, 2013 12:58 am

Skift Take

It would be fantastic to improve the TSA, but Congressman Mica — who has raised more money from airlines and air transport companies than any other member in the House — is too much of an insider, and suffers from being more interested in scoring political points that actually improving safety.

— Jason Clampet

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Mannie Garcia  / Reuters

John Mica and his hairpiece address airline CEOs testifying before congress. Mannie Garcia / Reuters


 

Representative John Mica, one of the Transportation Security Administration’s most persistent critics, said he’ll propose legislation to return all U.S. airport screening to private companies.

It would be Mica’s biggest step toward dismantling the U.S. agency formed to take over aviation security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Florida Republican, who now leads a panel of the only House committee with unlimited scope and subpoena power, said he’ll announce as many as a half-dozen hearings into TSA operations starting next month.

“I’m telling you, whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or if there are a few independents left, people have had it right up to their eyebrows with TSA,” Mica said in an interview. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

Mica’s proposal to have private companies do all airport screening, as they did before the Sept. 11 attacks, goes beyond a measure he added to legislation passed last year making it easier for airports to opt out of using government screeners.

Expanded use of private screeners could benefit Covenant Aviation Security LLC, which has won at least $692 million in contracts since 2002, more than any other screening company, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Closely held Covenant maintains offices in Casselberry, Florida, which is in Mica’s district, and provides screening at San Francisco International Airport, the largest U.S. airport with private security.

Mica said his legislation would set a deadline for airports to return to private screeners, probably within two years, and will have “strong momentum.”

New clout

While Mica’s proposal on private screening goes beyond proposals even from fellow Republicans, his push comes with some newfound clout.

As chairman of the House transportation committee in 2011-12, Mica lambasted the agency so often its officials stopped showing up at his hearings.

TSA officials said he lacked authority to oversee them. He does now, in his new role leading a subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Mica’s renewed determination to reduce the size and mission of the TSA comes during a rare moment of agreement with Administrator John Pistole over the agency’s decision this month to allow small knives back on planes.

Mica, 70, said he’s reached “the end of my patience” with Pistole, who three times in 2011 and 2012 refused to appear at his hearings.

‘Subpoena power’

“I have clear jurisdiction, investigative jurisdiction with subpoena power,” Mica said. “I intend to use whatever it takes to get answers to try and change the agency.”

TSA officials declined to respond to most of Mica’s comments and positions. “TSA will provide representatives for testimony or hearings upon receiving notice from congressional committees with jurisdiction over the agency,” David Castelveter, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The TSA has about 58,000 full-time equivalent employees, according to the Homeland Security Department’s most recent budget. It has about 50,000 security officers at 446 airports. Mica contends the agency could function with no more than 5,000 people.

The TSA “should not be conducting the screening,” he said. “They should be setting the standards, conducting the oversight. TSA should be a security and intelligence agency.”

Global practice

Germany allowed screening to be performed by private contractors in 1995 and by 2000 most airports had followed that model, according to Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, which advocates for smaller government.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority hires private firms to do screening, Poole said in an interview. Most other airports outside the U.S. use private screeners under contract to airports, or airport authorities perform the screening under oversight from a national agency. Poole said. He said he wasn’t aware of any other industrialized nation where an agency regulates security and also performs screening.

Mica’s effort to privatize screening, while capitalizing on public frustration with checkpoint procedures, probably won’t overcome other factors that will spark fierce opposition, said Kip Hawley, TSA administrator for four years under President George W. Bush.

“The fact that the TSA work force is now unionized adds a new political dimension to the debate,” Hawley said.

Screeners’ performance

The Government Accountability Office in December recommended the TSA provide more guidance to airports and develop ways to monitor performance of private screeners in comparison to government employees.

Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, urged Pistole not to let any more airports convert to private screening until costs and benefits could be better determined.

Mica says he’s singularly suited in Congress to probe the TSA because he helped write the law creating the agency within the new Homeland Security Department after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Before Sept. 11, airlines were responsible for aviation security and hired companies to operate checkpoints. While the law made airport security a government responsibility, Mica and other House Republicans sought to preserve a role for security companies. The law establishing the TSA required five airports to have private screeners under a two-year pilot program.

April hearing

The number later grew to 16 before Pistole, in January 2011, froze new participation. Mica pushed an amendment into the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill requiring the TSA to let airports switch to private screeners, unless the agency could prove the change wouldn’t be cost effective or hamper security.

Mica said he’ll call his first hearing in April to question the administration’s claim that automatic spending cuts to government programs will require the TSA to furlough screeners and cause long lines.

He said he wants to ask agency officials why they signed a $50 million contract to buy uniforms a week before the so-called sequestration took effect. The TSA says an old contract expired, and without a new one it couldn’t continue to buy uniforms for its workers.

Later, Mica says he wants to focus on the agency’s contracting practices, including its purchases of body scanners used to check passengers for objects hidden under their clothes. The TSA canceled a contract with OSI Systems Inc.’s Rapiscan unit last year and ordered its scanners removed from airports after the company couldn’t meet a deadline to write software that would make images less revealing.

Pizza boxes

A former real estate developer first elected to Congress in 1992, Mica is known for a brash style that put him at the center of partisan clashes after Republicans took control of the House in 2011.

In 2012, Mica helped trigger a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA, leading House Republicans in a feud with Senate Democrats over union organizing rules and rural-flight subsidies that continued until the agency’s authority expired.

Mica ridiculed the TSA at a news conference for putting help-wanted ads on pizza boxes. On occasions Pistole was asked to testify at hearings and declined, Mica had a name card and empty chair placed at the witness table.

Mica says the TSA has yet to prove it can stop terrorists from boarding flights with explosives, pointing to the incident on Dec. 25, 2009, in which a Nigerian man attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.

“They’re still looking for ways to take down aircraft, I firmly believe it,” Mica said of terrorists. “It has a dramatic impact psychologically and economically it’s devastating.”

With assistance from Alan Levin in Washington. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Michael Shepard. To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net; Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net. 

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