The DHS FY 2007 budget request proposes a 6.0% hike in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)’s budget. The increase in the budget is largely a function of incremental increases to existing activities (screening, federal air marshals, etc.). There aren’t really any new programs in the budget request, which makes sense given the relative maturity of our aviation security regime.
The most notable feature of the budget request for the TSA is the shift in the means of funding from appropriated funds to aviation security fees. OMB’s budget appendix for DHS explains the plan accordingly:
The Budget proposes $4,905 million in discretionary and mandatory resources for the Transportation Security Administrationâ€™s aviation security activities. Of this amount an estimated $3,986 million is financed by offsetting collections from passenger and air carrier security fees. The budget proposes changing the airline passenger security fee to a $5.00 flat fee per one-way trip, regardless of the number of segments flown by a passenger. For passengers who fly two or more legs on a one-way trip, there will be no additional charge to their fee. For passengers only flying one leg on a oneway trip, the fee will increase from $2.50 to $5.00. The change in fee structure will provide a more equitable distribution of fees per user. The Budget also proposes to collect $644 million from the air carriers, which includes retroactive collections of $196 million in payments due to the Federal Government in 2005 and 2006; the fee levels were recently validated by the General Accountability Office.
I wrote last week about how a similar proposal was made in the budget request last year, and it was a non-starter in Congress. Nothing has really changed since then. As CQ noted yesterday:
Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, acknowledged at a hearing last month that a return of the proposal would not be greeted warmly.
It raises an interesting question though: is aviation security something that should be user-fee funded based on the distribution of its benefits, or is it inherently a public good?
If aviation security were simply a question of threats to the airplane, then I could see a case for making it user-fee funded; in that scenario, the people who benefit from security are the same people who pay for it. But aviation security is about more than the threat to the plane. It’s about threats to skyscrapers and public buildings, as we know far too well. It’s about the secondary impacts to our economy from terrorist attacks in the skies. You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to have a personal stake in wanting strong aviation security in the United States. Given this, I would argue that it’d be a mistake to shift aviation security so sharply in the direction of user fees.
The budget request also includes some odd language about how DHS will manage the shift in funds to user fees:
Provided further, That security service fees authorized under section 44940 of title 49, United States Code, shall be credited to this appropriation as offsetting collections and shall be available only for aviation security: Provided further, That the sum herein appropriated from the General Fund shall be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis as such offsetting collections are received during fiscal year 2007, so as to result in a final fiscal year appropriation from the General Fund estimated at not more than $918,678,000.
If I read this correctly, basically DHS is saying that they’ll go ahead and make available to TSA a sum of money equal to the full budget from the General Fund, but will reduce this allocation as the user fees roll in. This seems like it would put TSA’s budget in a risky and fragile situation. For example, how will TSA manage the fact that aviation security spending is relatively even across the year, but receipts of user fees are very uneven, given seasonal fluctuations in travel? I think we need to hear more about how TSA would manage such a budget process.