By Burgess Everett
Congress's next Homeland Security Committee chairman is determined to explore further privatization of the Transportation Security Administration, work on its beleaguered image and avoid internal squabbles among committees trying to get a crack at the agency.
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said he hopes to sidestep situations like Thursday's Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on how TSA regulations effect the "aviation passenger experience" -- a hearing not a single representative of the agency will attend. TSA said the transportation committee has "no jurisdiction" on the matter, flatly stating it would "continue to work with its committees of jurisdiction." A T&I spokesman asserted that list should include Chairman John Mica's panel.
"The TSA's position that it may disregard the transportation committee's requests for information, including invitations to testify, seems to rest on the incorrect notion that, because the committee does not have direct legislative jurisdiction over the agency, it therefore has no obligation to provide the committee with information," said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Mica.
McCaul said he's prepared to work closely with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is set to take Mica's gavel next year as McCaul replaces Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) atop Homeland Security; both current chairmen are term limited.
King told POLITICO in June that "John Mica can say what he wants, but we have John Mica's jurisdiction." McCaul hopes to steer clear of public spats over TSA, a regular in the congressional spotlight; the agency says it has participated in 38 hearings and 425 congressional briefings in the past two years.
McCaul suggested T&I will indeed have "pieces" of TSA oversight in the next Congress and plans to assign a full-time staffer to work out committee jurisdiction.
"We're not going to have turf battles in the Congress," McCaul said in an interview shortly after he won the Republican Steering Committee's endorsement for the chairmanship on Tuesday. "The other thing we can do is have joint hearings. I've got ideas about TSA; I know Bill does. You know we're pretty much on the same page. I think having joint hearings, the idea is smart. And I don't anticipate that's going to be a problem."
Those hearings are likely to focus on exploring more privatization options for TSA front-line workers, McCaul said, though he's not in the same camp as those who have suggested blowing up the entire organization or the resignation of TSA Administrator John Pistole. The new aviation law expanded some privatization options, including to Mica's home airport in Central Florida, and McCaul agrees there's work to be done in that area.
Of the handful of airports with privatized screening operations, the largest of which is in San Francisco, McCaul said: "They still look like TSA; they fulfill the same responsibilities. They're not union. So I think they work more effectively, cost-effectively, as well. So we've had 16 airports experiment with this. And I think we need to take a look at those 16 airports and see if we want to pass legislation to ease that up with other airports so they can do the same."
A bigger problem might be tackling the negative image the TSA has accrued since its creation by Congress and President George W. Bush's administration following the Sept. 11 attacks.
"They've got a public image problem, a public perception problem. They ought to be targeting terrorists and be more passenger-friendly," McCaul said. "Are you going to take away the machines? No. But I think having a little better marketing, public relations program would go a long way."
The Texan -- still a subcommittee chairman for another month -- is wasting little time getting to work. On the same day he essentially cemented his future chairmanship, McCaul pushed through a bill that would create a bicameral congressional panel to recommend structural changes at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA. It's unclear whether the Senate will take up McCaul's legislation in the next month; a spokesman for the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee did not immediately respond to a question regarding Chairman Joe Lieberman's (I-Conn.) position on the bill. But McCaul said it's emblematic of the type of TSA reform he intends to pursue atop the powerful panel.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't do anything," McCaul said of the Senate. "But I would urge them to take it up. It's a good bill; it would revamp DHS and apply a business model approach to it."