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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

TSA, Big Government and the Controversy That Was Inevitable

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Travelers stand in line as they prepare to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Friday, May 27, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Memorial Day week. Travelers stand in line as they prepare to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Friday, May 27, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Memorial Day week. Alan Diaz/AP

In February 2002, I wrote a story for Government Executive centered on the debate (such as it was) over federalizing airport security under the Transportation Security Administration. After the 9/11 attacks, in a stunning reversal of the trend at the time toward privatizing government services, Congress voted overwhelmingly to federalize security screening — which was then handled by private contractors hired by the airlines.

Among TSA’s challenges, I noted, would be “trying to balance the concerns of the airlines and their passengers about keeping the system moving quickly against the need to provide effective security.”

That’s been a concern since the creation of the agency, and it has become acute this year with stories of endless security lines at airports across the country. As a result, we’re coming full circle, with conservatives arguing for the privatization of TSA in the name of efficiency (and they say, better security).

It’s not like we couldn’t have seen this series of events unfolding this way almost 15 years ago. I ended my 2002 piece this way:

Suppose … there are no new terrorist incidents involving airplanes, yet the TSA continues to perform the law enforcement function set out for it by conducting far more thorough searches. Then we can expect hearings about why TSA bureaucrats are forcing passengers to wait in unnecessarily long lines.

The TSA, in fundamental ways, has been set up to fail. If it does, the latest chapter in the long history of American big government will not be a happy one.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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