POLITICS
10/30/2011 08:29 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2011

John Mica Has No Legal Power Over TSA, But Pushes The Jurisdictional Boundaries

WASHINGTON -- The powerful chairman of a key congressional committee is expected to release another scathing report on the federal agency that protects the nation's airports as early as this week.

The only problem is that Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) doesn't have any legal jurisdiction over the Transportation Security Administration. As he often notes, he did help create his "little bastard child" -- but the committee he now heads, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I), is no longer the boss of the TSA.

The T&I committee had sway over the TSA when it was formed soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But when the TSA and all or part of 21 other departments were melded into a new Department of Homeland Security, decision-making authority was transferred to the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Mica is a member of a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee responsible for homeland defense, which includes TSA. Yet his argument last June for privatizing the agency, "TSA Ignores More Cost-Effective Screening Model," came out as a "T&I committee oversight and investigations staff report."

The webpage of Republicans' T&I committee lists TSA "oversight" among its "current issues," noting the committee "is monitoring the programs and performance" of the agency as well as "working to reform and reduce the size of this massive bureaucracy."

Most committee chairmen on Capitol Hill are fiercely protective of their turf while eager to expand their territory, but "Mica stands out" in the 112th Congress, said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

While some have suggested that Mica's crusade to privatize the TSA may be related to campaign contributions from security companies that would stand to profit, Ornstein is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"Ego is the first word to mention with John Mica," he said. "This is somebody who has reveled in his role as chairman of the committee who doesn't want to recognize any jurisdictional boundaries."

And that has enraged the lawmakers who really do have TSA oversight -- though they have been more diplomatic than Mica, who last week called a TSA pilot program "idiotic."

"The fact is that the Committee on Homeland Security has sole jurisdiction over all TSA security matters," said Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y). and Transportation Security Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) in a joint statement to The Huffington Post. Noting that their committee recently passed TSA's authorization bill, the congressmen said, "In conducting our oversight of TSA, we welcome input from all members of the public, as well as members of Congress, Chairman Mica included."

And Mica gives input, often to the chagrin of colleagues. In June, he attached a last-minute amendment to a House Homeland Security bill that would cut funding for security screeners. The measure passed, but without the votes of King, Rogers or Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Mica has also shown up at other committees' hearings, in particular where TSA Administrator John Pistole or other agency officials are testifying, and has annoyed colleagues by giving speeches and otherwise shanghaiing the sessions.

Not that the congressman hasn't tried to drag DHS and TSA officials before his own committee. It's just that they won't come.

In a letter to Mica last spring that was obtained by HuffPost, a TSA official explained why the agency would not be sending a representative to testify at a hearing on biometric identification cards for pilots.

"As outlined in the Rules of the House of Representatives, TSA is specifically excluded from certain jurisdiction and oversight by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure," wrote LaVita LeGrys, TSA assistant administrator for legislative affairs.

"TSA respectfully declines to testify before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a matter that is outside of the Committee's jurisdiction and oversight," LeGrys concluded.

Mica defiantly left an empty chair for Pistole at the hearing.

When two members of a T&I subcommittee asked this August for a classified briefing from the TSA on aviation threats, Peter Hearding, the agency's legislative director, replied with the same identical boilerplate to each. His letter, sent last month, helpfully adds: "TSA provides regular threat briefings to the House Committee on Homeland Security (CHS), TSA's committee of jurisdiction in the House of Representatives. I would encourage you to work with CHS to be invited to their future threat briefings."

Mica's spokesman, Justin Harclerode, confirmed that TSA and DHS officials have denied requests to appear before his committee and provide briefings. "Frankly, I think he's a bit surprised by this administration's arrogance in not responding to requests by members of Congress. But he's not deterred," Harclerode said. "As long as he is in Congress, on the Transportation Committee, and on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he will exercise his duty to improve the effectiveness of this agency."

And there is a good chance he will get away with it given the chaos on Capitol Hill when it comes to oversight of security and intelligence. More than 100 committees and subcommittees claim to have some jurisdiction over homeland security matters. The 9/11 Commission recommended streamlining Congress' fragmented oversight to eliminate redundancies, and King has made reorganizing the lower chamber a priority. Yet little has changed.

The House Committee on Homeland Security is a legislative "eunuch," Ornstein said, that was "almost set up to fail."