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Lawmakers question TSA $50M uniform contract in light of sequester

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FILE: March 4, 2013: A Transportation Security Administration officer waits by an X-ray machine at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Calif.REUTERS

Republican lawmakers have written to the head of the Transportation Security Administration questioning whether a recent contract for new uniforms worth as much as $50 million was money well spent -- when officials are warning that budget cuts will cause staff shortages and flight delays.

"The rationale behind the timing of TSA's uniform contract and other uncertainties surrounding the contract award raise concerns," the lawmakers wrote. The letter to TSA chief John Pistole was signed by Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and John Mica, R-Fla., who each chair House oversight subcommittees. 

The letter comes after the TSA agreed on a deal last month worth up to $50 million to purchase new uniforms. Agency officials signed the contract just days before the start of the $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as sequester. 

The TSA, while trying to avert furloughs, says it will first use a hiring freeze and a reduction in overtime to cut costs -- while warning this will still result in longer lines at the airport. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this month said wait times were already going up, though there are mixed reports on such delays. 

On Feb. 22, a few days before the TSA contract was signed, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also said the sequester cuts could result in flight delays as long as 90 minutes at major airports in Chicago, New York and San Francisco and warned about furloughing air traffic controllers. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has since moved to shut down 149 air traffic control towers. FAA is part of the Department of Transportation, while TSA is under the Department of Homeland Security. 

The letter from Chaffetz and Mica -- which referenced an earlier FoxNews.com report on the contract -- cited the repeated warnings from top officials about the impact of sequester cuts while requesting more information on the uniform deal. They requested a briefing from the agency and asked whether "any consideration" was given to a delay in the new uniforms "in light of the possible impacts of sequestration." 

The TSA, in a statement, stressed that the $50 million figure represents the "maximum value, not the amount expended," and that the contract was meant to fill a gap in service. 

The agency explained that the contract was needed after the prior contract -- which covers replacing worn uniforms and providing them to new hires -- expired Feb. 17. 

"The new DHS-wide contract to purchase all component uniforms won't take effect until next year, so TSA signed an interim two-year contract on February 22, 2013 with a $50-million dollar ceiling to continue to procure new uniforms," the agency said. "Without the contract bridge, TSA would not have been able to procure additional uniforms which are lower than or equal to the cost of any other uniform worn by officers in the federal government." 

The one-year contract with VF Imagewear Inc. provides employees with such clothing and accessories as shirts, pants, a belt and socks. 

However, the company, better known for its Lee and Wrangler brand jeans, can agree to extend the contract an additional 12 months. About half of the company's clothing is made in Mexico. 

The deal does not include shoes or dry cleaning, according to CNSNews.com, which first reported the story.