Where exactly does all this money go? Down a lot of rat holes, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s investigative arm. This includes raising concerns that no cost-benefit analysis was conducted before TSA rushed into service “Advanced Imaging Technology” (i.e., full-body scanning) machines, which cost a quarter-million dollars per unit just to purchase and install. Most recently, a GAO report recommended that funding for what has been called a passenger-profiling initiative be curtailed because “TSA cannot demonstrate that the agency’s behavior detection activities can reliably and effectively identify high-risk passengers who may pose a threat to the U.S. aviation system.” This endeavor cost taxpayers a pretty penny, as it required 3,000 “behavior detection officers” at 176 airports, roughly equating to $200 million per year. In total, about $900 million has been sunk into this program since 2007.
Despite such wasteful spending, the conference committee is contemplating the flawed budget arithmetic of a TSA fee hike. But the economic arithmetic is just as worrisome. Higher fees will quite obviously lead to higher airfare prices and hurt both business and recreational travelers. If they cut back on their plans, the negative ripple effects will extend well beyond the airline industry – and that can’t be helpful to an economic recovery still finding its feet.
A middle-class air traveler is already likelier to pay a higher total tax load on an airline ticket than on a 1040 income tax form. Our government should be working to lighten this burden, not make it heavier. Policy makers must also follow the lead of Canada and European nations in using more private security screeners, as well as privatizing air traffic control systems. As a recent Cato Institute report noted, in many aspects the U.S. “has become a laggard in commercial aviation.” Nor should our government, through the Export-Import Bank, underwrite cut-rate passenger jet purchases for foreign airlines (already subsidized by their own governments) that compete with U.S.-based carriers.
In the near term, instead of trying to fatten the Treasury’s coffers by shaking down companies and consumers for more money, our leaders need to live within the modest caps on spending they enacted barely two years ago – and, make them stronger. This can start by forgoing the appalling idea of raising TSA fees, and ensuring that the agency makes better use of the resources it already has. It’s time Congress started screening its own budget baggage – for ineffective, inefficient programs.