Leadership void at TSA is a morale bust, say unions

Aviation security agency has been without permanent chief for more than a year.

A few days after a second nominee withdrew his name from consideration as head of the Transportation Security Administration, federal employee unions are claiming the continued lack of leadership at the agency is hurting morale.

"Facing a range of serious issues, it is vital that the Transportation Security Administration have at its helm permanent leadership," Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement. "That is why it is disappointing to see the withdrawal by former Maj. Gen. Robert Harding of his nomination as administrator of the agency that plays a critical role in the safety of air travel."

Harding withdrew his nomination on Friday, following questions over contract work his private security firm performed for the government in Iraq. The Defense Contract Audit Agency determined that Harding Security Associates had overbilled the government by about $2 million.

He is the second TSA nominee to pull out in a cloud of controversy; Obama's first choice, Erroll Southers, also withdrew his name for consideration. Although some questioned Southers' conduct as an FBI agent, the issue of collective bargaining rights for Transportation Security officers also factored into confirmation proceedings.

The American Federation of Government Employees said finding an administrator was crucial, but it's more important to ensure that whomever the Senate confirms is the right person for the job.

"Because of the importance of the TSA administrator to our nation's security, the administration has got to make it a priority to find a nominee who is above reproach and can win a confirmation bid," AFGE President John Gage said in a statement.

NTEU praised the Obama administration for pushing another nominee through the process -- Alan Bersin, commissioner of the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection. The White House used its constitutional authority to make recess appointments while the Senate is out of session. Bersin is currently an assistant secretary for international affairs at Homeland Security. Obama also appointed 14 others to posts during the past weekend.

"This agency, too, has gone for far too long without permanent leadership," Kelley said. "That has put a number of pressing CBP issues on hold, including staffing shortages, the failed 'One Face at the Border' initiative and budget issues, among others."

NTEU and AFGE recently have filed petitions with the Federal Labor Relations Authority to hold an election to determine which union should become the sole representative for TSOs. Two House panels have approved a bill that would allow TSOs to collectively bargain with management, but the bill has not yet come to a floor vote.