Rogers Pushes Pistole to Make Cuts to TSA Workforce
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff
After saying the Transportation Security Administration appears bloated, inefficient and unacceptably slow in instituting changes, Alabama Republican Rep. Mike D. Rogers added during a Thursday hearing that he hoped agency head John S. Pistole would dramatically shrink the size of his workforce.
“I want to see you get leaner and smarter at a more rapid pace,” said Rogers, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, as the hearing drew to a close.
It was a point to which Rogers, a longtime advocate of the TSA allowing private companies to take over screening operations at more airports, constantly returned.
The congressman told Pistole that he thought the TSA could thin its ranks by 30 percent to 40 percent. After Pistole replied that such a cut would be a “challenging proposition” that would require a change in what the country expects from its security system, Rogers asked how much of a reduction the agency could make, asking if 25 percent or 20 percent would be possible.
“I’m not willing to say a percentage that I am willing to reduce,” Pistole answered.
Rogers persisted, however, saying the agency’s current staffing level is too high. In a tight fiscal environment, if the TSA wants to continue purchasing technology and funding training programs, it will have to cut back on staffing to offset those costs, he said, adding that “your number’s not getting bigger.”
“You don’t need 46,000,” he said. “Nobody in this room believes with a straight face that you’ve got the right number of people.”
Pistole found himself responding to several specific critiques from the chairman.
Rogers said that he has heard at several town hall meetings that travelers don’t like seeing TSA workers idle at airport checkpoints. Pistole replied that many airports don’t have space for screeners to take their breaks, and that town halls are usually attended by people who arrive to criticize, not compliment.
When Rogers talked about the total number of TSA workers, Pistole said that 14,000 of the 46,000 are part-time workers who handle busy periods such as morning rush hours at airports. If TSA was faced with a staff budget reduction, it might have to cut those part-timers, which would be bad for efficiency at the agency, he said.
Rogers also complained to Pistole that there are 88 TSA workers who oversee the contractors who perform screening at San Francisco International, the largest privatized screening airport, Pistole responded that only 20 of the agency’s workers at the airports are overseers. The rest are other types of employees, such as surface transportation inspectors and officials from the office of general counsel. Rogers said the airport could probably get by with only two or three screening overseers; Pistole said that number would be too low.
During a discussion about the training of checkpoint supervisors to better handle sensitive situations with passengers, Pistole said his agency has trained about 50 and plans to do the same for hundreds more by the end of the year, working toward the goal of getting all of the nearly 3,000 into classes. TSA has had to find the money for that training within its existing budget, he said, adding that if Congress provided a specific allocation, the agency could expedite the process.
TSA is working to come up with risk-based security solutions intended to address passenger concerns and those from Congress. Several of those programs, including the trusted traveler initiative known as PreCheck, have received praise from lawmakers. Rogers complained that the agency is taking too long to implement such overhauls, but Pistole explained that implementation is inherently slow.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he said, adding at another point that TSA is cautious about rolling out technology and other innovations that could address privacy and efficiency concerns about screening. “If terrorists can exploit a vulnerability because we rushed something out, that’s a worst-case scenario.”
Pistole also took criticism from Democrats at the hearing. Ranking member Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the agency has to better justify its work by publicizing examples of the security threats they intercept at airports gates. “You’ve got to tell TSA’s story,” she said.
Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., said the agency could possibly trim its ranks.
“Any entity can run a little bit leaner and smarter,” he said.
At a time when Congress has several, vocal critics who regularly lambaste the TSA, though, Rogers said he still understands the need for the agency.
“Half of Congress wants to get rid of the department because they think it’s useless,” he said. “You and I know that’s not the case.”