- - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Over the past decade, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has become the poster child for everything that’s wrong with big government. Since its creation, the agency has had an employment increase of nearly 400 percent, its warehouses are close to capacity with nearly $100 million in screening equipment sitting idle, and it spends more than $17,500 in training costs per new hire yet is unable to consistently conduct criminal and credit background checks on their employees. These are just a few concerns on a long list that increases by the week.

Just hours before sequestration, as federal agencies were preparing to cut billions of waste, fraud and abuse from their budgets, the TSA proved once again that it is not only tone-deaf, but in need of immediate reform, announcing a $50 million contract to procure new uniforms for its 50,000 officers. One of my greatest concerns with this announcement is that the organization is continuing to spend tens of millions of dollars on federal law-enforcement uniforms for federal employees who do not have any federal law enforcement training. If there is a clearer example of waste, fraud or abuse, I don’t know what it is.

When Congress created the TSA through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in 2001, airport screening personnel were designated as federal security screeners. They wore white shirts with appropriate TSA patches and black pants to properly reflect their level of training, which is simply to screen passengers and bags at airport terminals.

In 2008, however, because of low morale within the workforce, the agency administratively reclassified federal security screeners as Transportation Security Officers and Behavior Detection Officers. In addition to new titles, the officers were given federal law enforcement badges and uniforms.

Time magazine contributor Amanda Ripley succinctly summed up the transition in a 2008 article stating that the TSA was “outfitting frontline employees with new gold badges and royal-blue shirts as part of a broader effort to improve their image and make people, to put it bluntly, hate them less.”

Unfortunately, like most image makeovers, the title and uniform upgrades were purely cosmetic, as TSA does not provide the officers with any federal law-enforcement training. Despite their law-enforcement appearance, they are still provided the same basic level of training that they received as federal security screeners.

Since the makeover, the agency has further complicated the problem by allowing its officers to unionize, which led to the largest collective-bargaining agreement since World War II. As part of the union-led agreement, the Transportation Security Officers’ uniform allowance nearly doubled to $446 per year, which is more than the basic uniform allowance for service members in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy.

To further put that into perspective, a Marine lieutenant who has earned a commission, passed an intense, six-month basic training program and has fought in combat only receives a one-time uniform allowance of $400. That’s a small token of appreciation compared to the annual $446 allowance that’s afforded to TSA officers without any law-enforcement training.

Five years later, workforce morale remains low and uniform costs are continuing to increase at a staggering rate. In 2008, the initial cost to transition the organization’s 43,000 frontline employees over to their new uniforms was $12 million. However, TSA’s recent $50 million uniform agreement for its 50,000 Transportation Security Officers is four times the initial cost, despite the fact that their employees already have uniforms from previous years.

In its uniform contract award announcement, the agency stated that it will accept additional proposals within 30 days after publishing the announcement. Here is my proposal for Secretary Janet A. Napolitano: Take the $50 million that you were going to spend on providing non-federal law-enforcement employees with law-enforcement uniforms and use it to return TSA officers to their original congressionally approved uniforms and titles as federal security screeners.

If the TSA is serious about protecting U.S. citizens, it should immediately put an end to this federally funded charade. Lives are precious, and taxpayer funds are too sacred to waste on advertising available officer positions on pizza boxes and at discount gas stations without providing proper background checks. It’s no wonder there has been a litany of TSA employees abusing their officer positions, including child pornography, theft, prostitution rings, kidnappings and sexual assault.

To return Transportation Security Administration officers to their original title and uniforms, I plan to reintroduce my bill, the Stop TSA’s Reach in Policy Act later this week. This bill will overturn TSA’s administrative reclassification by returning its officers to their original congressionally approved uniforms and titles as federal security screeners. With citizens’ help, we can end this abuse.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is a Tennessee Republican.