Pointed Questions for TSA Chief at Budget Hearing

There was plenty of criticism Tuesday by a Senate committee considering the Transportation Security Administration's proposed fiscal 2009 budget.

There was plenty of criticism Tuesday by a Senate committee considering the Transportation Security Administration's proposed fiscal 2009 budget, from foot-dragging on security upgrades to increased fee proposals.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee grilled TSA chief Kip Hawley over impending deadlines for aviation security upgrades, set by the Sept. 11 commission law (PL 110-53), and the performance of newly launched technology.

"The administration's complete overhaul of the TSA budget structure makes it unclear whether the mandates in the [Sept. 11] Act are receiving resources for implementation," said committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.

One of the most controversial proposals of President Bush's $7.1 billion TSA budget is a four-year, 50-cent per flight ($1 one-way maximum) surcharge to existing passenger security fees. The administration estimates the surcharge would collect $426 million in fiscal 2009, and approximately $1.8 billion over four years, to purchase explosive detectors and to expedite universal checked baggage screening.

Hawley said the first $250 million collected from the surcharge would be used to make aging airport infrastructure compatible with explosives detection machines and other new screening systems. TSA has been under fire in recent years for making slow progress in implementing new screening technology.

The fee "would accelerate our deployment [of the machines] to four years," he said, "from what is now going to take more than a decade" under yearly appropriations.

Inouye asked why the administration would push a fee increase after Congress recently rejected a similar Bush proposal in the fiscal 2009 Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization (HR 2881).

Hawley said the fee's time limit made it different from other requests, but some panel members didn't seem convinced.

"I think the temporary surcharge is temporary only in imaginations," said Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Ranking Republican Ted Stevens said the surcharge wasn't fair to frequent flyers, referring specifically to Alaska, his home state, where he said, "70 percent of our cities are reached only by air. We fly probably 10, 15 times the amount of any Americans and yet I find that there's no recognition of that in this plan."

Stevens asked TSA to consider making exceptions for intrastate flights or those departing from small airports.

Hawley said the fee is intended to function as a "large-scale tool," but said he would explore Stevens' concerns.

Congressional doubts resurfaced Tuesday over whether TSA would be able to screen 100 percent of passenger airline cargo by the 2010 deadline.

In January, two Democratic House Homeland Security panel members, Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, asked the Government Accountability Office to review whether TSA's cargo standards are "commensurate with the level of security for the screening of passenger checked baggage," as required by the Sept. 11 commission law.

Cathleen A. Berrick, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the GAO, told the panel she was aware of TSA cargo screening plans and pilot programs, but "we haven't yet seen the specific details and plans on how TSA plans to implement" universal cargo screening by 2010.

When asked whether the plan technology would be ready, Berrick said the Homeland Security Science and Technology Office "which is spearheading the technology effort, in partnership with TSA, has been slow."

She did say TSA has significantly strengthened the security of domestically transported cargo but "there's been less of a focus by [Customs and Border Protection] and TSA on cargo coming into the United States from foreign countries."

Some senators didn't seem confident in Hawley's explanation that TSA's plan to screen cargo aircraft doesn't include screening each package because "from a risk perspective . . . the passenger aircraft represents a bigger risk."

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