As the Trump Administration prepares its first federal budget, the White House reportedly is considering cuts to the Transportation Security Administration to help pay for the construction of the border wall with Mexico—and making airline passengers pay higher “security fees” to make up part of the difference.
Citing preliminary budget documents, Politico reports that the White House is considering budget cuts for TSA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Coast Guard as part of an effort to reshuffle the federal budget to pay for the wall. The TSA would face a $500 million budget reduction, Politico says, while FEMA would get a $375 million cut, and the Coast Guard’s budget would be cut by $1.3 billion.
During the campaign, Trump promised to make Mexico pay for the construction of the border wall, but it’s never been clear how he intends to make that happen. During his address to Congress last week, Trump didn’t say anything about how to pay for the wall, but promised that it “will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime.”
In reality, the wall would be a costly and mostly useless project. On net, it’s certainly not worth spending $6 billion on Trump’s vanity project just to get a $500 million cut in the TSA, but that doesn’t mean those cuts aren’t justified on their own.
For example, the TSA’s budget cuts would include a $65 million reduction for the agency’s totally useless behavioral detection officers.
A November 2012 audit by the Government Accountability Office found that, after 10 years of running its behavior detection program, the TSA could not demonstrate its effectiveness. The TSA even admitted that it did not have any way to measure whether the program worked, aside from counting “referrals to local law enforcement” (which turned out to be a list of people arrested for everything from unruly behavior to public drunkenness, the GOA found, but not a single instance of a legitimate national security threat).
“Until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation, the agency risks funding activities that have not been determined to be effective,” the GAO concluded, using auditor-speak for “this program should be defunded.”
Undeterred by the audit, the TSA is still using behavior detection officers (at an annual cost of around $200 million) and has expanded their use at some airports, seemingly in an attempt to prove their usefulness. Guidelines for the program, published in 2015 by The Intercept, show that the TSA’s crack team of behavior-monitoring agents are told to identify potential threats (like Reason’s Ron Bailey) who yawn too much, blink too little, breathe quickly, make eye contact with security personnel, or don’t make eye contact with security personnel. Truly stunning that they haven’t busted any terrorists with this pseudo-science, isn’t it?
But wait, there’s more bad news: Trump’s preliminary budget calls for airline passengers to pay more to make up for a portion of the proposed TSA budget cuts. According to the Associated Press, the White House is considering a $1 increase to the “security fee” tacked onto all airline tickets.
Those fees currently are set at $5.60 per one-way flight, but would increase to $6.60. It would be the third increase in the fee since it was created, along with the TSA, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Originally, it was a $2.50 per flight fee, before rising to the current level in 2014.
More than $3.6 billion in security fees were collected last year, but since 2013 about one-third of the revenue has been directed to non-security spending.
We’ll end up paying more for no measureable increase in security. Hey, that’s a pretty good metaphor for Trump’s wall too.