"We are facing a real crisis at this juncture," said Mineta, testifying about the situation before the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation. He added that with the reduced funds granted by Congress, the agency would not be able to function as planned. "Is it too late to do something about it? Practically speaking, I think it is," he said.
House Democrats blamed mismanagement and waste at the Transportation Security Administration for on-going problems with recruitment and organization. The agency's original director, John Magaw, resigned last week under fire for poor performance, they pointed out.
"John Magaw was fired because he was incompetent. People thought he was totally out to lunch, but you stuck with him for far too long. Now you're blaming Congress? This is so partisan -- I am so disappointed with your performance here today," Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., told Mineta.
"If you would bring forward a plan I believe we could move forward with no problem," DeFazio added.
Federal responsibility for airport security lies with the Transportation Security Administration, a new agency created in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks. The agency is charged with federalizing all private airport security employees and activities in an attempt to tighten up on safety.
Progress has been slower than expected. The deadline for the shift for some 429 major U.S. airports is in mid-November. As of Tuesday, Mineta said, only three airports had been federalized.
The agency has hired 3,004 people -- only a fraction of the projected 67,000 workers, it will need to carry out the job. Of 1,100 baggage screening machines planned, 29 have been installed, according to auditors at the Department of Transportation. The agency has requested an additional $4.4 billion from Congress to speed up operations and make screening deadlines. But citing troubles at the agency, a House committee cut $1 billion from the request.
Lawmakers Tuesday criticized high TSA salaries and a top-heavy bureaucracy. Costs for redecorating the offices of the new Director and his staff topped $400,000, lawmakers said.
"I've heard from screeners themselves- there are supervisors for supervisors for supervisors. We don't need another huge bureaucracy. We need an efficient federal agency," said John Duncan, R-Tenn.
Mineta said that the agency had little hope in making end of the year screening deadlines with the funds currently allotted to the agency. In addition, an employee cap of 45,000, set by Congress last week, would hamstring the agency, he said.
"Less money with no flexibility means fewer TSA employees, less equipment, longer lines, delay in reducing the hassle factor and/or diminished security at our nation's airports," Mineta said.
The slowdowns at the TSA have become a major point of contention as the House decides on a final Homeland Security bill. The latest House version of the bill extends the baggage screening deadline to Dec. 31, 2003, a move, which infuriated Democrats.
Lawmakers said they hoped the agency would turn around under the direction of its new chief, Admiral James Loy, the former Commandant of the Coast Guard, who took office this week.