TSA workforce reform bill takes another step forward

One day before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that spurred the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, a House panel approved a bill that would give TSA employees collective bargaining rights and move them onto the General Schedule pay system.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday passed the 2009 Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act (H.R. 1881) 19-10, with no amendments but plenty of arguments on both sides. The vote fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure.

"The right to bargain collectively would be on any list of basic American rights," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. "And it would be on any list of denials you would expect in an authoritarian state."

Proponents of the bill claimed it would reduce attrition at TSA by granting workers protections available to other government employees. But critics claimed the legislation could compromise national security by inhibiting the agency's ability to discipline or fire incompetent employees.

"A lazy screener can mean the deaths of thousands of people," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind. "The ability to discipline, and the ability to fire has to be different in this type of situation."

In addition to allowing TSA employees to bargain collectively, the bill would grant them whistleblower rights, 1978 Civil Service Reform Act protections and the opportunity to appeal adverse actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board. It also would move employees out of the Performance Accountability Standards System, TSA's pay-for-performance plan, and onto the General Schedule. In a report issued last week, the Congressional Budget Office estimated this would result in pay hikes for thousands of TSA employees. It would provide an average annual pay increase of $1,700 for 36,000 employees in TSA's bottom two paybands, budget analysts projected.

The House Homeland Security Committee approved the bill in July; it now heads to the House floor. While no vote has been scheduled and there is not yet a companion bill in the Senate, supporters are optimistic about its chances of passing.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said he expected some Senate Republicans would back it. "This is a lot less controversial than a lot of labor issues," he said.

The bill has strong support from federal labor unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, which represent employees at TSA. Current law allows agency employees to unionize, but the unions do not have the power to create collective bargaining contracts with TSA managers.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday also approved the FBI Families of Fallen Heroes Act, which would require the Justice Department to cover moving costs for immediate family members of bureau employees who die in the line of duty. The act also would require Justice to pay the costs of transporting the bodies.

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