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GOP Congressman Suggests Private Approach To Airline Security

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The mess happening in airports around the county caused by a shortage of security screeners is causing a lot of frustration. It's also prompted Congressman Darrell Issa, Republican of California, to wonder if there might be a better way to approach airline security - in short, to privatize it. Private security screeners are already in place in some American airports, like San Francisco International. But when I spoke with Representative Issa earlier today, I asked him how he envisions privatization working on a national scale.

DARRELL ISSA: The Department of Homeland Security will continue to have the broad responsibility for ensuring our transportation safety. It would certainly require TSA individuals at all the airports, as they are today. If you go to San Francisco International Airport, what you'll find is the mundane work is done by TSA-cleared personnel that don't work for the government. This is the hybrid that was envisioned, and it wasn't authorized by TSA. It was in the original creation. It's simply never been expanded to other airports to give them the same opportunity that San Francisco and 21 other locations have.

CORNISH: And right now, are wait times shorter at those airports - for instance, San Francisco?

ISSA: They are shorter, particularly at surge times. They also have a higher level of accuracy - in other words, the security you depend on - because they have lower turnover in their personnel. And federal agencies, individuals working for the government, when they're honest brokers looking for - if you will, for problems, they tend to have their highest and best use. We do this in food safety. We do it in drug safety. The federal government doesn't make the drugs. It doesn't cut your meat or pick your produce, but it does oversee it. And it's the same concept that's used at San Francisco International and many other major airports. No one is suggesting that the law enforcement element be outsourced or that TSA as an entity go away, but rather three-quarters of the jobs could be done with higher reliability if we were to follow the San Francisco model.

CORNISH: I want to ask you about a conversation that's been happening about the budget and funding for TSA. People have pointed to the idea of the shortage of screeners having to do with the fact that Congress has diverted money collected from security fees that we travelers pay - diverted that to other uses. And there's an argument that the TSA is essentially hemmed in, in terms of how many screeners they can higher, what kind of competitive wage they can offer that will help them retain people. Is that the heart of the problem? Make the case for why it isn't.

ISSA: Government employees and government bureaucracies will always ask for more money, more personnel and not be held accountable. Under the program that we're suggesting, the local fees would be raised locally, spent locally for contractors, meaning that an airport's budget would obviously pay for the portion that is TSA oversight, but they would be responsible for contractors so that those people locally would have the incentive to spend more money to get a better, quicker job.

CORNISH: Congressman, before I let you go, I need to know what you think should be done in the immediacy. Given this is a large-scale change that you're talking about, what would you like to see happen?

ISSA: It is not a large-scale change. The fact is that the TSA is looking at and asking to bring on as many as 6,000 more employees. Those would be brand-new workers. So the decision to bring on, if you will, private sector helpers to leverage the ability of the airlines and the local cities to bring them temporary or part-time employees to meet the summer surge certainly is a better, quicker solution than trying to bring on 6,00 permanent full-time employees for a season that's already on us. But it's a good question, and there's no question at all that if you needed to bring people on to move those - those little containers back and forth so you can put your - your purse in them, you could certainly do that better with a non-government than a government job. So I appreciate your asking that and look forward to seeing your coverage.

CORNISH: Congressman Issa's a Republican. He represents California's 49th Congressional District.

ISSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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