Harding Withdrawal Stuns Supporters

Harding Withdrawal Stuns Supporters
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

Robert A. Harding’s withdrawal from consideration as President Obama’s choice to lead the Transportation Security Administration has left supporters reeling and security experts wondering how the administration’s second failure to get a nominee confirmed will affect the agency.

“I was shocked when I saw this guy drop out because I was told . . . you couldn’t beat his background,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the two unions vying to represent TSA employees if they are allowed collective bargaining rights.

The AFGE and its rival for TSA representation, the National Treasury Employees Union, were hoping Harding would be confirmed quickly. Gage said the pressure from unions and others distressed over the February withdrawal of Erroll G. Southers, Obama’s first choice to head TSA, might have pushed the White House to turn Harding’s nomination out quickly.

“When Southers went down, I had some rocky meetings with the administration, and I did push them to get somebody up and quickly,” Gage said. “And they did. Now, obviously, their vetting might have been a little weak, but they actually were trying to accommodate us in putting up a nominee as quickly as they did.”

NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said she still has faith in the administration’s vetting ability, adding that Harding’s decision could be partially due to the difficulties associated with Senate confirmation.

“I still believe that they’ll find the right person,” she said. “It was a tough nomination process. It always is, but for some, I don’t think it’s what some people expect that it’s going to be.”

After retiring from the Army as a general with a specialty in intelligence, Harding formed Harding Security Associates, working on contracts with the Defense Intelligence Agency, an agency for which he once served as director of operations.

During confirmation hearings, Harding faced questions about his work, including a 2006 audit that found the government overpaid his company by $2.2 million. The firm was required to pay a settlement of $1.8 million. The Washington Post later revealed that the Army awarded Harding a $100 million sole-source contract for which he qualified by claiming status as a service-disabled veteran with the condition of sleep apnea.

The disorder makes breathing difficult or occasionally impossible and can be life-threatening, although it is manageable with the use of a breathing device.

“As someone who has sleep apnea, I never thought of it as a disability that would help me get contracts,” said Rich Cooper, a principal at the security consulting firm Catalyst Partners, although he added that he did not know how the condition would affect a military career.

Both Cooper and James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the administration opposition to using contractors and lobbyists to fill federal positions might have contributed to its headaches with Harding’s nomination.

“This administration has made a very big deal about not wanting people who have benefitted from the revolving door,” Cooper said.

Said Carafano, “If all contractors are evil, then you can’t be upset when someone attacks you for being a contractor.”

Next Steps
The opinion that the TSA leader’s spot needs to be filled, and quickly, is universal in homeland security circles. Agency officials have said they won’t make any substantial decisions on funding and policy priorities until a new administrator takes over, and the administration has called filling the job a top priority.

The private sector shares these concerns.

“Without a bold and driven TSA leader in place, there is little light at the end of the tunnel for the millions of travelers frustrated by the air-travel security screening process,” said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of U.S. Travel Association.

After striking out on two nominees, Cooper, who supported Harding, said the administration is going to have trouble finding someone who wants the job.

“Whoever they put forward is going to basically have their life put under the Hubble telescope,” he said. “This nomination didn’t go 30 days. They’re probably going to have more people turn them down.”

Sources on the Hill said Harding might have withdrawn to avoid the probing questions and politics that go along with confirmation. If that’s the case, Cooper said, the administration should have made certain its vetting process ensured the nominee was ready for such scrutiny.

“This is a full-contact sport,” he said.

But Donald H. Kent Jr., a former assistant secretary for legislative affairs at DHS, contended that the nomination process for department officials became harder after former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown’s lack of experience was exposed in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

“Since Mike Brown, the whole thing’s changed,” Ken said. “It’s now ‘Is there a deep, dark secret?’”

Kent, the vice president of Navigators Global, added that he does not know Harding and was neutral on his nomination. “We’ve got to get back to ‘are they qualified’ and the totality of their career,” he said. “We’ve got to get away from this whole issue of have they ever done anything wrong?’”

Carafano said the administration probably will be caught between the desire to avoid another contractor and the need to find a confirmable nominee when it makes its third pick for the post.

“My guess is we’re going to get a nominee who is eminently appointable but doesn’t have the experience,” he said.

Rob Margetta can be reached at [email protected]

Source: CQ Homeland Security
© 2010 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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