Robert Harding, President Obama's second nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, took no position on collective bargaining for TSA employees at his confirmation hearing today.
Harding, a retired Army major general, compared the collective bargaining issue to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, and said he would consult a range of TSA employees and stakeholders before making a decision.
Labor unions, and some TSA employees, have long complained about department policies that bar TSA employees from having bargaining rights. Obama said during the presidential campaign that he supported collective bargaining rights. The president's first nominee to head TSA, Erroll Southers, also took no position on the issue of collective bargaining during his nomination and pledged only to study the issue; nevertheless, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., blocked his nomination over that issue, and Southers eventually withdrew.
"I owe it both to the [Homeland Security Department] secretary and the president to present the implications if that policy was implemented," Harding told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "If confirmed, I guarantee you, my recommendations would be very unbiased, they would be very factual, and I think that's what I would owe the secretary and the president."
Many law enforcement agencies at the federal and state levels are unionized, but senators are nonetheless wary of offering collective bargaining rights to TSA employees; some fear it would take away the TSA administrator's ability to redeploy the workforce during a crisis.
"I think that's really the issue here, rather than full collective bargaining rights," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee's ranking minority member. "The TSA has to be able to shift resources, including people, on very short notice. ... We have to be extremely careful as we proceed in this area that we do not take away the absolutely critical authority ... to respond to threats."
Collins cited the failed Christmas Day bombing attack in Detroit as an example; TSA employees across the country were redeployed to increase security at many airports.
"I would never negotiate away [those] authorities," Harding said.
Harding said improving the agency's workforce would be his second-biggest priority, after "identifying and neutralizing" aviation security threats. He pledged to increase training, and to review the process for promoting employees, an idea backed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the committee chairman.
"I think part of what will be important, not only in improving effectiveness but also morale, is that you do a doublecheck to make sure the people being promoted are really the best that can be promoted," Lieberman said.
Harding, a former senior Army intelligence officer, faced renewed questions about interrogation-related work his company performed in Iraq. Harding said the interrogations performed by his firm, Harding Security Associates, followed the Geneva Conventions. Harding faced similar questions yesterday at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.