The chairman of a House committee lambasted the Transportation Security Administration because its chief refused to appear at a hearing Thursday.
In a letter, TSA Administrator John S. Pistole told Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that the Homeland Security Committee has jurisdiction over his agency and he “respectfully” declined to appear, congressional staffers said.
“I’m very disappointed,” Mr. Mica said in opening Thursday’s hearing, which examined efforts by TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration to introduce ID cards using biometrics, such as fingerprints or iris eye scans, for transportation workers.
“A huge amount of taxpayer money has been expended,” he added, noting that TSA has spent nearly $500 million on the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC).
TWIC cards bear a digital photo that can be used for biometric facial recognition and carry encoded fingerprint data. The cards were mandated by Congress for U.S. merchant ship crews and all others requiring unescorted access to U.S. ports.
The program has been beset by problems and delays, and there is still no plan to introduce machines at ports that can read the cards’ data, leaving them vulnerable to fraud and tampering, Mr. Mica said.
“You would think that we could have some better response from the agency that is primarily charged with this,” he said, warning that the matter was not closed.
“I can assure you, that we will have TSA testifying [about TWIC], perhaps … at a joint future hearing” with another committee, he said.
The TSA responded in a statement: “The House of Representatives has determined, through its own rules, that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee does not have jurisdiction over TSA.” It pledged to continue working with Mr. Mica and other members of Congress.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said his panel does oversee TSA but that he had invited Mr. Mica “as a guest of the committee to participate and question witnesses” at a hearing on the ID program.
Mr. King, New York Republican, noted that consolidating oversight of Homeland Security agencies such as TSA - which are overseen by many panels in both chambers of Congress - was a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.
Former TSA chief Edmond S. “Kip” Hawley told The Washington Times that he regularly briefed both the Transportation and Homeland Security committees when he headed the agency in the George W. Bush administration.
“It is worth remembering that [Transportation] was the committee that created TSA and many of the current members, especially John Mica, were very active 10 years ago” and have a lot of experience with TSA issues, Mr. Hawley said in an email.
Mr. Hawley expressed sympathy for Mr. Pistole’s position: “The issue is probably not whether John Pistole is willing to go, he can readily handle the hearing, it is more likely that the issue is between the committees and the Department of Homeland Security about precedent and procedure,” he said.
“The only thing worse than not showing for a hearing is getting stuck in between two powerful committees,” Mr. Hawley added.