Lawmakers lining up for a shot at TSA

June 7, 2012 12:58 PM EDT

Inefficiency, bloat, mismanagement — just another congressional hearing on the TSA.

A House subcommittee charged the Transportation Security Administration on Thursday with lousy customer service, dwindling professionalism and an inability to adequately handle terrorist threats.

“You are too bogged down in managing an oversize workforce to mitigate the next potential threat,” Transportation Security Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) told TSA Administrator John Pistole.

The reprimand marks the latest in a recent spray of congressional allegations, reports and hearings blasting just about every aspect of the TSA — from the organization’s suspicious storage of equipment to what the agency’s officers wear.

Everybody wants a piece. And why not? It’s great political leverage.

For Republicans, it’s a chance to remind voters they stand for individual liberties. And Democrats get to say they hate big government, too.

In the end, attacking the TSA offers a welcome diversion for a Congress that appears stuck on everything else.

“They’re an easy target,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a senior House Homeland Security Committee member, told POLITICO. “We shouldn’t let any slouching go on … but we are misguided as we begin to make them a whipping boy.”

The Homeland Security Committee oversees the TSA, but that hasn’t stopped others from weighing in.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), who has pummeled the agency for excessive spending and wants to see a move toward more privatized screening, released statements last week calling on the TSA to “come clean” to the media about a spate of recent firings. That follows claims that the agency interfered with his investigation into wasteful TSA equipment and a congressional report labeling the agency a top-heavy bureaucracy.

Mica told POLITICO he has asked the Oversight Committee, which also has delved into TSA’s actions, to obtain the agency’s internal emails.

“There’s something fishy going on,” he said. “Let’s force their hand. … That’s why I sent the press release, because I couldn’t get anything out of them.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) released a report Monday describing 50 transportation security officer arrests in the past seven years. She also has authored legislation that would require TSA uniforms to look less like those of law-enforcement officers.

Blackburn, a member of Energy and Commerce, said the committee has some authority over travel regulations.

“TSA is a behemoth organization,” she told POLITICO. “Most members of Congress were shocked when they realized workers were moving from work shirts and khakis with a patch into federal law-enforcement uniforms. They’ve usurped their authority and power.”

The list goes on. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) has called for the resignation of Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has proposed legislation to dismantle the TSA altogether.

Pistole, at the Thursday hearing, pointed to programs he has either implemented or enhanced that centralize leadership and ensure proper treatment of passengers.

“It’s a part of just the sheer numbers that we deal with — 630 million people a year,” Pistole said in defense of the agency. “We are not going to have 100 percent customer service for everyone. It is our goal to provide the most professional security in the most effective way.”

The Thursday hearing wasn’t all attacks. Members applauded the agency’s desire to move toward risk-based security measures. Jackson Lee reminded officials that no terrorist attack has occurred since Sept. 11, largely because of the agency. House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) praised the organization for establishing collective-bargaining rights.

But much of Congress can’t agree whether to dismantle or improve the agency, much less determine which members are responsible for oversight.

Those who technically hold the most authority over the TSA appear the least inclined to dismiss it.

“It’s an oversimplification to say, ‘Do away with TSA’ or ‘TSA is doing everything wrong,’” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee , told POLITICO.

“I’m certain if you follow any police department for a week, you are going to find guys who are sleeping on duty. You’re going to find people who show up later, some guys who’ve had drinks, whatever. The idea is to keep some kind of perspective.”

King offered a gentle territorial shove.

“John Mica and I are friends; John Mica can say what he wants,” he said. “But we have jurisdiction.”

Rogers said the turf battles only further harm the besieged agency.

“It’s frustrating not just from my perspective,” he told POLITICO, “but it’s frustrating to the department because they don’t get direction from one committee.”

A release on Thursday’s hearing threw a virtual stake in the ground, saying the committee has “sole jurisdiction over all Transportation Security Administration security matters, including the security of passengers and cargo within the U.S. aviation system.”

Rogers said he’s spoken with House Speaker John Boehner about cementing the Homeland Security Committee’s authority. “The speaker knows we have jurisdiction; that has to be resolved,” he said.

Any change wouldn’t take place until next session.

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