Rich Cooper

Jun 10, 2010

When the Chairman of any Congressional Committee uses the word the “embarrassing” to describe something at the very beginning of a hearing, a feeling or look of fear and dread is prone to appear in the testifying witness.  That was not the case when it came to the nomination hearing of John Pistole to be the next TSA Administrator.

He was cooler than a cucumber. He was pleasant, sharp, prepared, comfortable, and never showed one hint of breaking a sweat or being flustered by anything that the Commerce Committee Senators threw at him. In short, he was outstanding. Frankly speaking, I think out of any of the nominees that the Administration has put forward for the various homeland positions, his confirmation hearing was the best performance out of them all. He was Stephen Strasburg in a navy suit and white shirt, and future nominees in this Administration and subsequent ones would do well to watch the tape of his performance to see what you should do and how you respond.

The embarrassing factor, as mentioned by Chairman Rockefeller, was the fact that it has taken the Administration this long to find someone to put in this absolutely critical job. While Pistole received tremendous accolades for his years of service at the FBI and his high profile and pressure-filled experiences from both sides of the political aisles, he had to endure the gauntlet of concerns and loaded questions about prospective collective bargaining for TSA workers.

Sens. Hutchison and DeMint did an exceptional job of framing their concerns about how the unionization of Transportation Security Officers at the nation’s airports might adversely impact national security and protecting the traveling public. In short, they don’t want political pressures to any particular interest to jeopardize national security or how the TSA Administrator does his or her job. While they mentioned these issues in previous hearings, the dynamics of this issue were different this time.

First off, Sen. Hutchison stated that she knew the final decision on the TSA collective bargaining issue would not be made by Pistole, should he become the agency’s new Administrator. That decision would be made by Secretary Napolitano. While her acknowledgement of that fact may seem mundane to casual observers, in the previous nomination hearings, then-nominees Erroll Southers and Robert Harding were made to be seen as the sole decision maker on this issue, and how they felt on the issue absolutely had to be known at that point in time. Hutchison, passing the buck to Napolitano, effectively took that threat away from Pistole. As the third nominee for this post, Pistole’s answer of “needing to look at all of the information” and his pledge “to engage the various stakeholders so as to make an informed decision on the matter for the Secretary” was literally the same statement that Southers and Harding had uttered before. This time his statement seemed to satisfy the concerns of collective bargaining opponents.

The second factor that changed the dynamic on this issue has to do with the results of Tuesday night’s midterm election results and the whole union-Obama Administration dynamic. After failing to take down Sen. Blanche Lincoln (and in the words of one anonymous White House official having “just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise”) organized labor is not exactly getting the political cover that it was once getting from the Administration or members of Congress. Relations between what has been a stalwart supporter of the Democratic Party and the White House have been decaying rather quickly. As such, opponents of collective bargaining are feeling the wind in their sails that they can defeat this issue, and those in favor of granting those rights aren’t exactly feeling warm and fuzzy by the strong-armed, bullying tactics that labor interests have been putting on display.  

Of any of the exchanges on this issue, the best question came from Sen. DeMint when he asked Mr. Pistole whether “collective bargaining would improve national security operations at the FBI?

Recognizing the trap that the loaded question was setting, he answered honestly in stating, “No.  At the FBI we have to be able to surge resources and have flexibility to respond…”  

While he gave DeMint the words he wanted, Pistole cautioned him that as a prospective TSA Administrator, he would “have to look at all of these issues to make a full and informed decision for the Secretary to consider on this issue.”

That was all the Committee on both sides of this issue needed to hear, and they then moved on to other issues of concern.

Pistole’s background and experiences literally put him in a category unto himself. While the two previous nominees had very distinguished and accomplished backgrounds and could have done admirable jobs if they had made it through the increasingly ugly confirmation process, the fact that Pistole was able to sit at the nominee table as the Number 2 guy at the FBI spoke volumes.  He came to the table with no known concerns about accessing databases for personal use or awarding of, or over billing on, government contracts. Nowhere in the hearing was there question that there was any question about him. He was the perfect nominee and his performance showed it.  

The only problem with being someone that good is the metric that must be achieved. He’s got one nightmare of an inbox waiting for him should he be “the one” to cross the finish line and finally become TSA’s next Administrator. If we have seen anything these past few months, hype and hope for nominees are two different things, but Pistole proved this week that he truly is the person for a very thankless job. Let’s hope he can live up to both.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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