Senate Commerce hearing gives TSA positive reviews

But panel sharply questioned plan to impose a passenger fee increase to pay for additional baggage screening technology.

The Transportation Security Administration received an unusually positive review from GAO Tuesday but then got aggressive questioning from Senate Commerce Committee members, particularly over its plans to impose a passenger fee increase to pay for additional baggage screening technology.

Although Cathleen Berrick, GAO's director for homeland security and justice issues, cited areas in which progress was needed, she said: "Overall, we found that TSA has more systematically planned for and guided investments" in air-passenger screening, air cargo, the air-passenger watch list and surface transportation security "and has taken, or plans to take, action to address many of the issues we previously reported."

Senate Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, wanted to know why TSA was seeking the fee increase for baggage screening "when they have been slow to embrace the provisions in the 9/11 Act for this activity and, in fact, have not fully utilized the resources already provided."

He was referring to last year's legislation implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

Inouye noted that Congress rejected a previous request for additional fees on air passengers. TSA Administrator Edmund (Kip) Hawley said the fee increase was an attempt to pay for accelerated deployment of advance baggage screening technology without increasing the budget request. Hawley said the plan for a fee increase was significantly different than the earlier one because it would expire in four years. The agency had plans for using the leftover funds for new technology, he added.

Senate Commerce ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was more adamant in opposing the 50-cent-per-flight fee increase, claiming that his constituents have to fly more intrastate than other Americans because of the size and difficult terrain of Alaska and are seeing none of the security improvements. "I don't know why we have to pay intrastate charges for security we don't get," he said. Hawley offered to work with the committee to address Stevens' concerns.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., grilled Hawley extensively on his failure to respond to two congressional mandates to improve security reviews of overseas repair stations used by U.S. air carriers. "You have substituted your judgment on priorities" for what Congress ordered, McCaskill said, calling the unscreened repair stations "a gaping hole" in air transportation security.

Hawley disputed her description of the threat posed by TSA's inability to inspect all of the foreign repair facilities and argued that it "doesn't reach our highest priorities." He said a proposed rule on how to conduct the inspections would be ready by the latest congressional deadline in August.

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