Does TSA Have Itself to Blame for Its Current Crisis?

Passengers wait in a screening line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Passengers wait in a screening line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Teresa Crawford / AP

A Senate panel on Tuesday voted to boost spending at the Transportation Security Administration by $228 million in fiscal 2017, a 3 percent increase for the agency reeling from long lines at airports and high job vacancy rates.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s homeland security panel agreed to an appropriations measure that would exceed President Obama’s fiscal 2017 funding request by $79 million. The increase would help offset the 5.5 percent budget cut TSA has endured since fiscal 2011, which agency officials say is partly culpable for the extended waits currently plaguing travelers.

The situation has become so severe TSA removed Assistant Administrator for Security Operations Kelly Hoggan on Monday, who came under fire during a recent congressional hearing for receiving $90,000 in bonuses.

The budget cuts, however, are partly TSA’s own doing; from fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2017 the agency has, through the president’s budget, requested  either the same amount as the previous year or less. It requested less than was enacted in the previous year -- a rare budget cut by choice -- in fiscal years 2012 through 2015.

If the latest Senate appropriations bill passes, it would mark the third time since 2011 Congress met or exceeded TSA’s funding request; in the other four years, Congress shortchanged TSA by 2-5 percent.

TSA has also run into significant staffing issues in recent years. The agency has sustained significant attrition rates, and has struggled to fill vacancies. However, some of the workforce reductions were intentional; TSA’s requested full-time equivalent positions have fallen each year since 2013, until its fiscal 2017 proposal asked for 450 more workers.

TSA’s shrinking workforce has been by design, as the agency thought it could do more with less due to initiatives like Pre-Check.

“TSA’s request includes a reduction of $100 million and 1,441 FTE as a result of savings related to [risk-based security],” the agency wrote in its fiscal 2015 budget justification. “Although the primary driver for RBS endeavors is to improve security, because these initiatives expand throughout the aviation security system, TSA anticipates gaining efficiencies at the checkpoint which include reduced screening personnel and corresponding support costs.”

Again in fiscal 2016, TSA noted it would be able to cut its screener workforce by 1,666 employees.

“RBS methods have proven more efficient in moving people through the checkpoint than regular screening lanes and require fewer resources than a traditional screening lane,” the agency wrote in its budget justification that year. “This reduction reflects TSA’s goal to continue transitioning to a smaller, more skilled, professional workforce capable of meeting the evolving requirements of RBS operations while ensuring the efficient movement of the traveling public.”

Now, after shedding 6,000 employees, the agency is scrambling to staff back up. While in 2014 the agency lost 4,644 employees while on-boarding just 373, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger recently told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the agency has stopped the bleeding. The Homeland Security Department this month announced plans to reprogram funds to accelerate the hiring of 768 employees in 2016 to address the immediate problems, while increasing the use of overtime and dogs to hasten lines.

Some Democrats have said the 2013 budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is partly responsible for TSA's budget woes, as it diverted to deficit reduction a portion of the security fees the agency collects from every ticket airlines sell. Lawmakers in the minority have said they are working on legislation to restore all of those fees to TSA. In addition to budget concerns and a spike in passengers, TSA has said new security procedures put in place after an audit found severe lapses in airport screenings have slowed traveler processing. 

The agency did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents transportation security officers, said the DHS reprogramming is not nearly sufficient. Instead, AFGE National President J. David Cox called on TSA to hire 6,000 new screeners, noting the volume of airplane passengers has increased 15 percent since TSA began shedding jobs. Cox also said the agency would continue to “hemorrhage” employees until they were given full job protections provided to most federal workers under Title V of the U.S. Code; TSA has for years ranked among the lowest agencies in the best places to work rankings.

Ultimately, however, Cox said the “untenable delays at checkpoints” have stemmed from “a lack of funding from Congress.”

“This is not a complicated problem, but Congress is avoiding the commonsense solution,” Cox said. “Give TSA the resources it needs to hire enough screeners to meet passenger demand.”

In order for Congress to give the agency those resources, however, TSA might first have to ask for them. 

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