Archive for November 18th, 2010

DIA and TSA – What We Can Do, and What We Can’t

I just got off the phone with Holly Woodruff Lyons, who’s a staffer with the US House Transportation Committee.  She was kind enough to spend about 15 minutes with me, discussing Rep. Mica’s letter, and the opt-out program, and was extremely helpful given that she didn’t know me from Adam.

It turns out that private contractors, while quite popular in the places where they are used, still have to obey TSA screening policies, and if TSA decides to put electronic strip-searchers at DIA, there’s no mechanism for DIA to resist.  TSA is responsible for security, not DIA.  This also means that the private contractors almost always are contracted to TSA, not to the local airport authority.  The airport applies for an opt-out, after which the Feds put out an RFP and go through the normal contracting processes.  There are some other models, where the private contractors work for the airports, but they still have to operates federal processes under federal supervision.

The innovations that Mica refers to are operational, not policy, but Mrs. Lyons did note that (not surprisingly) the private companies tend to be more responsive, more willing to open new lines, and more concerned about their public perception that the TSA.  For instance, the handling of heavy bags has led to a higher rate of injury for security workers, and many have subcontracted out baggage-handing to cut down on injuries.  In other instances, the turnover rate at private companies is far lower, further reducing operating costs.

When the TSA tried to run through a study comparing itself to its competition, and – surprise! – found that the competition was less efficient and more expensive, the GAO called them out on it, showing that the cost savings generally resulted from not counting federal pensions, and that sort of thing.  In fact, there’s every reason to believe that operationally, contractors do save money.  Mrs. Lyons has promised to pass along the relevant GAO reports and the studies that validate Rep. Mica’s statements.

We need to remember that the opt-out is a program that was written into the original TSA law, but that Rep. Mica is obviously a strong supporter of it.  Rep. Rogers, who currently heads the Transportation subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, and it challenging earmark baron Jerry “The Minority-Maker” Lewis (R-CA) for the chairmanship of the whole committee, is also a strong supporter.

Remember, Rep. Mica’s letter was sent before these procedures starting causing a public sensation, so he’s really not referring to them in his letter.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the opt-out to reduce the number of TSA employees, and thus its budget, and therefore its bureaucratic position.  Bureaucrats never like to be on the defensive, never like to be in the public eye, and their employees certainly don’t like being The Enemy.

Whether or not this is enough to get them to stop treating us as The Enemy remains to be seen.

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The Opt-Out Letter

It’s rare to see anyone in the federal government actively trying to devolve power back to any sort of state or local authority, but Rep. John Mica (R-FL), is doing exactly that.  Rep. Mica was the ranking member of the House’s Transportation Committee, and is likely to become its new chairman in a couple of months.  He’s also one of the authors of the original TSA legislation.  Mica has sent a letter to about 150 airport administrators around the country asking them to opt out of TSA’s screeners and hire private screeners instead.

I’ll post the full letter later, but two points are worth commenting on.

Under this program, TSA continues to set standards, pay all costs, and conduct performance oversight.

It’s unclear if this means that TSA has the authority to require private contractors to conduct the problematic scans, or whether those can remain up to the screeners’ discretion.  Much of the momentum for opting out won’t come so much from reducing federal bureaucracy as much as from opting out of these procedures.  It’s possible that the push to have airports opt out is a political tool designed to reduce TSA bureaucratic empire, or to create the threat of doing so, in order to push TSA to drop the procedures.

Rep. Mica also makes a couple of claims that, on the surface, make sense: that private screeners’ performance is better, and that they have been responsible for the “positive innovations” (his quotes) that TSA has adopted.  Both of these are believable, but a citation for those past studies, and examples of those positive innovations would go a long way toward building the case for an opt-out.

DIA is the fourth-busiest airport in the country; such an opt-out here would be a major development and perhaps set the pace for other airports to follow suit.

UPDATE: The letter is embedded below:

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