TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger will not be sticking around during President-elect Donald Trump’s administration; he plans to depart on inauguration day, POLITICO has learned.
The agency confirmed Friday that Neffenger has not talked with Trump transition members about staying on and has decided to leave, despite bipartisan appeals from lawmakers who hoped the administrator would hold his post.
“I would love it if the Trump administration would give him an opportunity to continue to implement the changes that he has been making,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees TSA, said this month. “He’s really been making some good changes, and they’re long-term.”
Similar to Rice’s sentiment, each of the top Republicans and Democrats who lead Congress’ homeland security panels have said they wanted Neffenger to continue in his current role. And that possibility seemed real, considering the former Coast Guard admiral has held the position for just a year and a half.
The administrator’s tenure at TSA began just one month after news broke in 2015 that TSA screeners had failed to detect fake bombs and weapons in 67 out of 70 covert tests. And in the intervening months, legislators have continually commended him for the steps he has taken to revive what many feel is a failing enterprise.
During Neffenger’s swearing-in ceremony, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson made clear that the administrator would be charged with immediately implementing changes to TSA practices, including “back-to-basics” training for all TSA officers, more manual screening at airport checkpoints and leading a revamp of the way passengers were selected for expedited screening via PreCheck lanes.
Neffenger followed through on each item of the 10-point plan Johnson had outlined and also kicked off initiatives beyond the scope of those directives, including creating partnerships that got major airlines to purchase new automated screening equipment for TSA, and advances toward using biometric information to verify travelers.
For each of those accomplishments, though, TSA has had an even greater number of slip-ups under the administrator’s reign.
Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee accused the agency this summer of lying about the fact that U.S. air marshals were not allowed on new scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba. The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general dinged the agency in the spring for failing to follow through on nearly decade-old mandates to regulate rail security. And dozens of TSA employees have come to the House Oversight Committee with complaints of nepotism and a “retaliatory culture” at TSA when it comes to whistleblowers.
Still, leaders on Capitol Hill have remained largely keen on the administrator himself.
Lawmakers didn’t even sour on Neffenger after TSA lines grew hours long at major hubs last spring, despite reprimanding the agency for years of poor budget planning and what many characterized as insufficient coordination with airports and airlines.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was sharply critical of TSA’s screening methods after the agency’s failure rate was divulged in 2015, has maintained his opinion that Neffenger “has done a really good job.” Johnson told POLITICO earlier this week that he would support the administrator maintaining his role beyond the Obama administration.
The Senate panel’s former ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) shares that stance, along with House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
Even Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who heads the House subcommittee on aviation security, has said he supported Neffenger staying on during the Trump administration, even though the New York Republican has himself been at least informally floated as a potential nominee for the TSA administrator post.
During Marine Gen. John Kelly’s confirmation hearing this week, the nominee gave little indication about what he would expect from the next TSA administrator if he is confirmed as Homeland Security secretary.
In his responses to the congressional questionnaire he received ahead of the hearing, Kelly made two mentions of TSA’s dual missions of keeping the public safe and keeping travelers moving. He also acknowledged that “improving the efficiency and effectiveness of TSA has been a priority” for the Obama administration and vowed “to ensure continuous improvement in the agency’s performance.”
Thompson, who has served on the House Homeland Security Committee for 14 years, said he has yet to identify any policy stances the incoming administration has taken on TSA issues.
“I would hope that TSA would continue to understand that passenger safety is number one — that we continue to deploy the best technology, coupled with best practices, in order to achieve that,” Thompson told POLITICO. “Anything less than that puts us at risk.”
The ranking member said he is also hopeful that TSA will continue to protect travelers’ civil rights. Additionally, he said he hopes the next administration will place the same importance on training for TSA officers and that DHS leaders will keep trying to improve the Office of Personnel Management’s morale ranking for TSA.
For his wish list, McCaul has also advocated for the agency to continue investing in new technology and to give more airports the option to privatize checkpoint screening.
In a 35-page national strategy he released in September, McCaul said TSA “has failed to provide the level of security and efficiency the flying public deserves” and recommended more serious consequences for TSA screening failures, improved vetting of employees and a review of programs like the Federal Air Marshal Service that could be ripe for cuts.