Transportation Security Still a Hot Topic

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told a congressional committee Tuesday that the Transportation Security Agency needs more money for aviation security if it is to meet security deadlines later this year.

"Less money with no flexibility means fewer TSA employees, less equipment, longer lines, delays in reducing the hassle factor at airports and or diminished security at our nation's airports," Mineta told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation Security.

While Mineta argued that TSA problems can be blamed on lawmakers more worried about budget caps and caps on federal workers, critics are already accusing the agency of being a bloated bureaucracy that cannot control costs.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., shot back at Mineta that if the transportation secretary is concerned a supplemental spending bill is $1 billion short, then he ought to explain why the agency needs $4.4 billion to begin with, especially since the Office of Management and Budget had agreed to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget request.

"I don’t think that the right hand of the administration seems to know what the left hand is saying it needs," DeFazio said.

Under the Airline Security Law, all screeners must be federal employees by Nov. 19. Original projections put that number at 28,000, but now some predict the TSA's overall workforce could hit more than 60,000, a number that didn't sit well with committee members.

"We need an efficient TSA, we don't need some over-staffed, gigantic bureaucracy with far too many employees. If we do things like that, we're giving terrorists victories they don't deserve," Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., said.

The TSA is also caught in the middle of a congressional fight over whether it should be required to have explosive screening devices installed at all airports by the end of the year.

The House homeland security bill, passed by the Homeland Security super-panel last week, would extend the year-end deadline, an option not acceptable to some members.

"There's a deadline for a purpose. So that pressure will stay on the living so that we can avoid having the dead," Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said.

The hearing also became an opportunity to address the controversial issue of arming pilots. In what appears to be a significant shift in position, Mineta said the new head of the TSA is exploring options to arm pilots, two months after the agency said it would not permit guns in the cockpit, but less than two weeks after the House voted to allow them.

Committee members also took the time to bash the former head of the TSA, John Magaw, who resigned last week citing health reasons. Some lawmakers didn't buy that explanation.

"The problems you had with the appropriators was because Mr. Magaw instilled no confidence. He had no business plan. People thought he was totally out to lunch, but you stuck with him for far too long," DeFazio said.