Congress could help with staff shortages at airports

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Warning of long lines and flight delays, the union representing Transportation Security Administration officers said airports are understaffed, officers underpaid. That could change under a bill to be taken up in the house this week. With more on this, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Bloomberg Government Editorial Director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Let’s start with that bill. This has been languishing, I think, for a year now, and it’s going to come up for a vote. Tell us about it.

Loren Duggan: Yeah, this is a bill that sponsored by Bennie Thompson, who is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. And it would change the laws governing TSA officers. When the agency was created right after the September 11th attacks, it was put under a separate employment system that most federal workers. So what this bill would do is shift them under the Title 5 system that federal workers are primarily covered by. This is a bill that has a little bit of bipartisan support in terms of co-sponsors, but when it went up in the Committee for a vote, it was pretty much down party lines. So there could be some votes either way on this bill when it hits the floor later this week, but it’s something that Democrats are trying to pursue. It’s backed by the union that represents most of the federal workers and opposed by the National Right to Work committee, among others. So we’ll see how this debate plays out. But this is the second kind of pro-labor vote we’ve seen recently in a house. The last one was more about private workers. But this is really about the TSA officers that work around the country.

Tom Temin: This would put them into the General Schedule GS system for pay. And presumably they would get higher pay than they’re getting now.

Loren Duggan: Probably so. The one thing that it would maintain his existing policy barring TSA workers from striking. Nothing would change about that. But for the most part they’d move under that Title 5 GS system with their current collective bargaining agreement still in effect under the bill as it’s written. So changing them to the general system was still a couple of little differences for the TSA here.

Tom Temin: Is there anything companion like in the Senate on this one?

Loren Duggan: There is a Senate bill that was sponsored by Brian Shatz, who’s aHawaii Democrat. It’s got some Democratic backers, but there really hasn’t been movement and it’s unlikely maybe that there will be this year. We’ll have to see once the House version moves over there if there will be any interest in picking this up, or if this is something that might have to wait for the next Congress and perhaps even a new administration to see if they would take a different approach.

Tom Temin: So neither TSA nor the officers should really hold their breath, I guess?

Loren Duggan: Perhaps not. But you know this. This could be a big win for the officers themselves, maybe a vote of confidence in them, and we’ll have to see how it plays out going forward.

Tom Temin: And I guess the other big issue this week, of course, is the coronavirus. With Congress, nobody really knows. We’ve heard wide range of possible appropriation levels. What can we look for this week?

Loren Duggan: Well, there has been building consensus on this issue. So it started off with the administration setting up a request for $2.5 billion with about half of that coming from new money and half coming from funds that were allocated for other purposes and then reprogrammed to use for the coronavirus response. Then we saw Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer come out with an $8.5 billion plan that really didn’t gain traction. Toward the end of the week, we were hearing four billion or more than four billion as a number that all sides were trying to work towards. And that would be the House and the Senate, with Republicans and Democrats trying to come to some sort of consensus here to perhaps even get this bill through before the next recess, which comes after next week. So we have two weeks of session and then another week long recess. Democrats also released a list of principles saying they wanted only want new money, not the transfer of existing money, and try to prevent the president from taking these funds and using it for anything else with things like border wall reprogramming, stuck in the back of their minds is one of the principals going into this discussion. So we may see a bill released this week, not clear if that means it’ll go to committee or if it will go straight to the floor either this week or next, once it’s ready to go. But there is some urgency here among lawmakers to get this money into the administration’s hands. And even if it’s more than they immediately need, they’d rather have them have more money in the administration rather than not enough.

Tom Temin: The budget is going to come up in some quarters, correct?

Loren Duggan: That’s right. We’ve seen a number of cabinet secretaries and lower officials come to the Congress in the last couple of weeks to defend the budget request and, of course, take questions from lawmakers. Alex Azar, the HHS secretary, was up there several times last week, but of course, most of his appearances became focused on coronavirus and what he was doing both as HHS secretary and as the leader of the coronavirus response before Mike Pence was put in charge by the president. We’ll see more cabinet appearances this week. The EPA administrator, some Cabinet level officials like the Energy Secretary, and they’ll have to see if there’s any more positive response from Democrats to some of the cuts that the administration proposed. We will also I believe some defense officials up there, where the defense budget is a little less partisan, sometimes in terms of the puts and takes on weapon systems and how many different ships they by. But there there will be a robust round of that again this week.

Tom Temin: Getting back to Alec Azar, I guess the cuts that were proposed to CDC and NIH by the administration somehow got conflated with the coronavirus business where they’re looking for more money.

Loren Duggan: I mean, certainly, you know, when we get into the budget discussions, especially around the largest numbers available for departments and agencies, there can be a lot of rhetorical use of those. And we’ve seen some of that, I think, on display. But in the end, there probably will be robust funding for the CDC and the NIH, both in the very short term in this coronavirus bill that they’re looking at passing. And then when it comes to the full year fiscal 2021 bill that will be written either later this year or early next year if things flip that late, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will probably provide robust funding for that above what the administration requested. Those have been popular agencies to get funding in the last several years, even when cuts were found elsewhere, people have tried to preserve NIH research and certainly I think if the coronavirus is a long term incident, then that will be factoring into decisions they make abound about how much to give to the CDC for the next fiscal year?

Tom Temin: What’s your sense as these debates start to heat up in the budget discussions start, What is the tone like? Because we’re still in this post impeachment. They were so far apart the two parties on that. Are they talking in a civil manner in general?

Loren Duggan: There are some, the green shoots of bipartisanship are there. I think we’re seeing it with this debate around a coronavirus bill where you do have bipartisan discussions going on with chairman and ranking members working very closely together. We have an energy bill coming up, possibly as soon as this weekend in the Senate, where the chairman, Lisa Murkowski, and the ranking Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, worked very closely to write that bill. We’re gonna see a hearing in the Rules Committee, where Republicans and Democrats are both finding examples of what they would see his executive overreach or a lack of balance between the two branches and maybe looking for ways to curtail that and reassert congressional prerogatives. So there is still a lot of partisanship. We obviously have a lot of election activity going on both of the congressional level, starting this week with primaries around the country and, of course, the presidential race. But there are still attempts going on at bipartisanship and coming up with consensus agreements on things. We certainly saw a spending bill signed at the end of last year, and there’s plans to move ahead with the process again this year. So there’s room for optimism and also, you know, some healthy skepticism about the state of politics.

Tom Temin: As always, thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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