Sunday, July 24, 2005

Learn from the TSA’s shortcomings
By David M. Primo and Roger W. Cobb

At the conclusion of “The Maltese Falcon,” Humphrey Bogart’s character, in discussing a crime, says “somebody has to take the fall.” That maxim has been borne out in the area of aviation security over the past three years. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the focus was on the private security companies responsible for screening baggage and passengers. Airline security has since been federalized, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is now the regulatory agency everybody loves to hate. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) has likened it to a “Soviet-style centralized bureaucracy.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) compared tests for new screeners to something that Jay Leno’s scriptwriters would pen.

The acronym TSA has been said to mean “Try Standing Around” or “Taking Scissors Away.” What makes the animus all the more remarkable is that the agency is little more than two years old.The obvious solution when something goes wrong is to blame the people who are carrying out a policy directive. And much of the criticism of the TSA — that it inefficiently allocates screeners, is wasteful in its spending and has no coherent plan for aviation security — is valid. Since its inception, the TSA has consistently been playing defense with vague statements that existing problems are being addressed and improvements are being made. But what about those who created the agency in the first place?

Lost in all of this is that the TSA is a product of the U.S. Congress, which passed the legislation creating the agency by vote margins usually reserved for motions to create National Happiness Day or some other such innocuous measure. Part of the blame for the TSA’s problems must rest on those members of Congress who voted to create the agency, all 410 representatives and the entire Senate (since the conference report went through in that body on a voice vote).

Terrorism has always been a threat in the not-so-friendly skies, but Congress did little to protect aviation until tragedy struck and it had no choice but to act. Dramatic events spur governments into action, but typically the responses are poorly planned, and ineffective. Exhibit A is aviation security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Congress gave the TSA the impossible task of designing itself from scratch and simultaneously restructuring how the skies are protected. Now that the TSA has for the most part failed, members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle — are quick to cast blame.And admittedly, the

TSA is an easy target, with contractors billing the government for luxury hotels during recruitment trips and its first head lavishly furnishing his office at taxpayer expense. Perhaps this is why most media coverage of the TSA focuses on its failings and gives members of Congress a free pass. But we suggest that members of Congress ought to examine their own actions on aviation security.

There are two possible explanations for the problems in the TSA’s design. The first is that certain members of Congress wanted the TSA’s centralized structure to fail so that a more rational decentralized structure could subsequently be implemented. This may be one explanation for the provision in the law allowing airports to move back to private screeners in late 2004.

The second is that the TSA was created hastily because Congress ignored the issue of aviation security until the Sept. 11 attacks. Take your pick: Machiavellian politics or hurried policymaking. Disasters are precisely the worst time to implement new regulations. Emotions are running high, and the goal is to pass something — anything — to satisfy the political pressures of the moment.

That type of reactive regulation is a more general problem in aviation politics, which is more disaster-driven than other policy areas. We agree with Mica and others that reforms are necessary to improve aviation security. But we hope, perhaps naively, that the TSA’s failures represent a wake-up call that new agencies should not be created in the heat of the moment.


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7:58 PM  

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