Panel proposes wider use of private baggage screeners
Bill would give airport owners a way around cap on federal screeners.
The House Homeland Security Committee wants airports to opt out of the Transportation Security Administration's aviation screening program as part of an agency reorganization the panel proposed Wednesday.
Homeland Security Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., said legislation the committee is introducing would provide airports with incentives and flexibility to hire private screeners.
If airport owners can show a savings by hiring a private screening company as opposed to federal screeners, the owner can use the savings to buy more technology, Lungren said. He dismissed the notion that the bill aims to eliminate the federal screening program but rather gives airports flexibility to get around the cap on the number of federal screeners.
Congress has prohibited TSA from hiring more than 45,000 screeners since creating the agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Lungren, along with Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y, said he wants to move the bill early next year.
Democrats on the panel did not join their Republican colleagues Wednesday, but Lungren said the GOP members consulted them about the legislation and tried to address their concerns in the bill.
But the bill does not include provisions on several hot-button issues raised by Democrats, such as screening cargo placed on passenger airplanes and bolstering rail and mass transit security in the wake of the London bombings last summer. Lungren said the bill would increase accountability and efficiency at TSA and, as a result, allow officials to focus more resources on those issues.
"This does not put us back to the pre-9/11 position," Lungren said. "It does not eliminate [security] standards."
Another provision in the bill would allow TSA to use commercial databases to verify airline passenger's identity before boarding the aircraft. Congress in the recently enacted fiscal 2006 Homeland Security spending bill prohibited TSA from using commercial data.
Lungren's bill would limit the use of commercial data by not allowing TSA to "purchase, compile, obtain or otherwise possess" the information. Nonetheless, the provision is likely to spark heated debate among Democrats and privacy groups.
The legislation also would set performance goals for TSA, state and local governments and the private sector to continue improving airport security. It would aim to reduce airline passenger frustrations with long security lines by requiring TSA to develop a list of vetted passengers through various programs that could bypass security checks and reduce lines.
It would also create an independent, performance-based organization within TSA to focus exclusively on airline passenger and baggage screening.
There has not been a comparable proposal in the Senate, although Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, plans to hold a series of hearings early next year to determine if the agency needs to be reorganized, a committee spokeswoman said.