For More Privatization and Less Unionization at the TSA

I travel a lot and one of most unpleasant problems I encounter is the TSA. The lines are frequently long and the employees on occasion discourteous. But the most annoying aspect is that I have very little confidence that its procedures are well designed to keep us safe or that its personnel even assiduously follow these procedures. Over the summer confirmation of my fears came in the form of Homeland Security’s revelation that in over ninety percent of the instances, a “red team” designed to test security got through with some sort of dangerous contraband. Such failures should force us to reconsider the structure of TSA.

What the agency most needs is more private competition. Currently few passengers go through private screening. If the agency put more private contracts out for bid, the government could incentivize better results.   The contracts could include clauses that would reward companies for passing the tests that the government run screening has so miserably failed. More competition would also aid innovation and efficiency over time.  A centralized bureaucracy is unlikely to come up on its own with the all best ideas. At first, the government could continue to centralize various aspects of security, like background checks of screeners. But even those could be outsourced as if contractors could show that they had better methods.

The government should also reconsider unionization of TSA screeners currently employed by the agency. The FBI and Secret Service are not unionized on the theory that unionization would detract from the needed flexibility and discipline.  To be sure, these agencies have important duties. But attacks on our transportation system can be as destabilizing to our nation and economy as many of the activities that those agencies address. What then is the rationale for unionizing TSA employees? If defenders of unions argue that unionizing the TSA improves morale and makes screening better, let us put that claim to the test. On a random basis, some airports could be permitted to have a union and others not.  We could  then evaluate the results.

TSA’s poor performance is a great opportunity for Congress simultaneously to improve our safety and its standing with the public. It should send up a bill mandating more privatization and force the administration to test the effects of unionization. I would be surprised if such legislation could not garner bipartisan support that would make it difficult to veto.