The TSA Two-Step

We present to you a story in two parts.

It’s not a particularly compelling or thrilling story, as the plot is a predictable one. In fact, all the major plot developments come precisely as the horrified audience expects.

In the first part, the public raises questions about the inefficient, bumbling and intrusive Transportation Security Administration which subjects law-abiding Americans to gross violations of our 4th Amendment rights out of a politically-correct refusal to profile suspect air travelers on a behavioral basis. A movement develops as several airports – the number grows to 17 in a short period of time, with more apparently to come – decide to opt out of using the TSA and instead choose to hire private screening companies in hopes of getting more efficient, less intrusive and friendlier service for their customers while still providing adequate flight security.

Airport directors tout the private option – embraced by San Francisco International Airport, for example, the largest in the country using private screeners – as a godsend in comparison to the sloppy invasiveness of the federal government bureaucrats. In Kansas City, for example, though TSA actually hires the private screeners upon the airport’s request, the management lauds its system as a winner.

The Kansas City International Airport is one of 17 in the United States where the screeners work for private contractors, not the Transportation Security Administration.

The airport’s director, Mark VanLoh, is expecting to be busy this winter: “I will be giving a lot of tours in the next few months from airports all over the country coming to Kansas City to check us out.”

Using private contractors does make a difference, VanLoh says.

“In my opinion, these contract employees — they’re not federal employees; they’re not guaranteed a job for life,” he says. “If they don’t meet the performance goals or maybe they’re consistently rude, or maybe they miss objects that go through the machine, they are terminated. I can’t remember how easy that would be to do with a federal employee. I don’t think it is.”

The private screeners are also touted by the incoming House Transportation Committee chairman, John Mica (R-FL), who has sent letters to 200 airports suggesting they consider using private screeners.

“The private screening under federal supervision works and performs statistically significantly better, so our main purpose here is in getting better screening and better performance, not to mention that we can get better cost for the taxpayers,” he said.

Several airports began researching the idea of switching from TSA, which employs some 62,000 public employees to do screening of air travelers – among them Orlando Sanford International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Tampa International Airport and Bradenton-Sarasota International Airport in Florida, Dulles International and Reagan National Airports in the Washington, DC area, and a number of others.

Also among the airports choosing to hire private screeners is a small airport in Missouri – Springfield-Branson Airport. Springfield-Branson files an application with TSA to join the private-option program.

But quietly, on Friday, Jan. 28 – as the nation prepares for a weekend and stands preoccupied with events in Egypt – TSA administrator John Pistole denies the application. Pistole’s denial comes with an explanation – it’s not just Springfield-Branson who won’t be hiring private screeners…

“I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time,” Pistole said.

He said airports that currently use contractor screening will continue to be allowed to.

Pistole said he has been reviewing TSA policies with the goal of helping the agency “evolve into a more agile, high-performance organization.”

Pistole’s decision seems ludicrous in light of his professed goals. Agility and high performance in organizational behavior are almost always the products of competition, and by shutting out private screeners at airports beyond the 17 already using them, he’s cementing the current system in place. He’s denying airports across the country who are exploring the option of bringing in private companies the opportunity to improve security, service and cost through competition.

The decision enrages Mica, who vows to launch an investigation.

“It’s unimaginable that TSA would suspend the most successfully performing passenger screening program we’ve had over the last decade,” Mica said Friday night. “The agency should concentrate on cutting some of the more than 3,700 administrative personnel in Washington who concocted this decision, and reduce the army of TSA employees that has ballooned to more than 62,000.”

“Nearly every positive security innovation since the beginning of TSA has come from the contractor screening program,” Mica said.

Onlookers are puzzled as to how such a decision could have been made in the wake of consumer backlash against TSA practices during the holiday travel rush.

But they shouldn’t be. Because Act Two of our little drama is just getting started.

In fact, Act Two is signaled just as Act One is reaching its climactic point…

“The nation is secure in the sense that the safety of our skies will not be left in the hands of the lowest-bidder contractor, as it was before 9/11,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We applaud Administrator Pistole for recognizing the value in a cohesive federalized screening system and work force.”

No one notices the stillbirth of the private screener program. It is subsumed by the natural weekend reset of the news cycle.

And as is customary of Washington outrages, the curtain opens on our Act Two the next Friday afternoon

The government will grant collective bargaining rights to the nation’s 40,000 airport screeners, the head of the largest federal workers union said Friday.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told The Associated Press he was informed of the decision at a meeting with John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA workers have tried for nearly a decade to win the same union protections as other federal employees, but Republican opponents have balked over worries that union demands could jeopardize national security or slow response times in a crisis.

Union officials call those arguments an insult to the hundreds of thousands of public safety officers that already have collective bargaining rights, including Border Patrol agents, firefighters and the Capitol police.

“Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency,” Gage said.

Pistole had spent months studying the unionization issue since he was confirmed to the post in June. The move comes just days after Pistole said the agency would not hire private contractors to screen airline passengers, despite calls to do so from some Republican lawmakers and frustrated passengers.

When the agency was created in 2001, it was excluded from regulations that give other federal workers the right to union protections. The law gave the TSA administrator the authority to decide whether collective bargaining should be allowed, and under the administration of President George W. Bush it was always prohibited.

President Barack Obama had pledged to get the screeners collective bargaining rights during his campaign. But the effort was delayed after Obama’s first two choices to run the agency dropped out during their confirmation processes.

Republican Senators, who are debating a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration – the vehicle this week for a proposed amendment repealing Obamacare – have seen this coming. An amendment authored by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker would bar TSA unionization. Wicker argues that TSA shouldn’t unionize for the same reason FBI, Secret Service and CIA employees aren’t unionized.

AFGE immediately castigates Wicker’s amendment. They’re not the only ones. The National Treasury Employees Union, which is competing with AFGE for the right to unionize TSA, establishes a robo-letter for backers to use in pressuring senators to vote against Wicker’s amendment. NTEU also does the same for another amendment, this one by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), which would direct TSA not to ban airports from choosing private screeners. Both amendments are proposed on the floor on Thursday; neither have come to a vote.

As it stands now, unless the Republicans can manage to get Blount and/or Wicker’s amendments into the FAA authorization bill TSA will have an election in March to choose either AFGE or NTEU and all but 17 American airports will have no choice but to employ unionized, bureaucratized public employees as security with no recourse or accountability. The airports will become a pressurized, hurried version of the local Department of Motor Vehicles. And some 40,000 people paid with taxpayer dollars will join 7.6 million others in belonging to a public employee union which will engage in collective bargaining with politicians – who depend on its votes and campaign contributions – to achieve benefits from the public fisc.

And it will have happened with almost no attention whatsoever from the national media, as both acts of this sordid play will have taken place in successive weekends when no one was paying attention.

If the above story makes an impact on you, and you should choose to contact your Senator and voice an opinion on the Blunt and/or Wicker amendments to S. 223, the FAA authorization bill, it is advisable that you do so next week.

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