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Washington standoff: Mica vs. Pistole


US President Barack Obama and former campaign rival Mitt Romney sat down for lunch on Thursday in the White House. But don't expect a similar breaking of the bread between TSA administrator John Pistole and outgoing House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) anytime soon. Friction between the two men spilled over into the public square this week when Pistole refused to show up for a House T&I Committee hearing on aviation security.

Pistole insisted the T&I Committee has no jurisdiction over TSA, and decided that neither he nor anyone else from the agency would troop to Capitol Hill to appear before Mica's panel. That didn't sit well with Mica, nearing the end of a six-year term as committee chairman, who blasted Pistole specifically ("The administrator of TSA is stonewalling our committee") and TSA generally ("This is our front line of security and it’s a weak line").

Both men would do well to take a deep breath.

Mica, a persistent critic of TSA, has scantly acknowledged the major change in direction Pistole, formerly the FBI's number two official, has made at the agency since taking over in June 2010. As Mica tells it, the agency is forever frozen in the immediate years after 9/11, when it did a poor job of dealing with both the commercial aviation industry and the general public, and unwisely treated all passengers as equal risks.

But under Pistole, TSA has moved decidedly in the direction of "risk-based" security, rolling out the trusted traveler Pre-Check screening program, ending intrusive checks on those over 75 and under 12 and focusing much more on intelligence to guide its efforts. Airlines and airports say the agency, which took a my-way-or-the-highway approach with the industry in its initial years, has significantly improved its outreach and now often works in close cooperation with them.

Mica simply refuses to acknowledge most of this, instead highlighting TSA's greatest miscues through the years and implying these mistakes are examples of standard operating procedure. Pistole, to him, is no different than previous TSA heads.

Pistole, for his part, can't let his anger at Mica get in the way of decent relations with Congress (especially since Mica will no longer be T&I chairman come January). In explaining why TSA was skipping this week's hearing, Pistole issued a statement saying in part, "the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has no jurisdiction over the Transportation Security Administration."

This may be technically true under a strict reading of House rules (the House's Homeland Security Committee has direct oversight of TSA), but it defies basic common sense. As long as the committee and the agency both begin with the word "Transportation," it's hard to argue that the T&I Committee has no oversight role to play with regard to TSA. As T&I aviation subcommittee chairman Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) pointed out at Thursday's hearing, it has long been accepted that the T&I Committee holds hearings on matters related to airports and airlines, and TSA's decisions certainly have a major impact on airports and airlines.

And Congress has exercised wide latitude in holding hearings. In one of the most extreme extensions of Congressional "oversight," professional baseball players were once called to Capitol Hill to testify about steroid use in the sport. Certainly considering that context, T&I Committee members asking questions of Pistole on behalf of US taxpayers, who fund the agency and endure security checks at airports, is hardly out of bounds.

Mica, who had a large hand in creating TSA back in 2001, recently told my colleague Christine Boynton that he'd prefer the airport screening function the agency performs be transitioned to private security companies with TSA providing oversight and focusing on "intelligence" and "connecting the dots" rather than "hassling millions of passengers every day."

Pistole, in fact, has repeatedly said that intelligence should guide the agency and that treating passengers well is important, so the two men aren't as far apart as it may appear.

Mica should acknowledge TSA's recent efforts to change its operating strategy and rectify past errors. And Pistole should acknowledge that he has to answer to Congress. TSA's absence at Thursday's hearing was quite noticeable; the agency was left in the untenable position of being publicly criticized by members of Congress and hearing witnesses with no way to respond.

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