(CNSNews.com) - Melvin Carraway, the acting administrator of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), refused a request to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday to discuss persistent flaws in airport security, including passenger and baggage screening.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) indicated that ego had something to do with it: The Homeland Security Department, which oversees TSA, objected to having Carraway sit on a panel that included Rafi Ron, an ordinary citizen who runs a private security company.
Chaffetz called the excuse "absurd" and "offensive."
"At first we heard a variety of excuses -- 'We needed more than two weeks.' Then we had a big dust-up because, for weeks we had planned to do this; in fact, more than a month we had planned to do this -- (we) felt that (Carraway), as the acting administrator, would be pivotal to this discussion. But Homeland Security objected to Mr. Ron's presence on the panel. They felt that it was demeaning -- demeaning! -- to actually have the acting administrator sit on the same panel as a non-government witness.
"That's absurd. That's offensive," Chaffetz said. "It's a waste of the committee's time, it's a waste of Congress's time. We don't need two panels to have this discussion. We want to have one panel.
"Now, we had decided, in a very bipartisan, mutual way, that cabinet-level secretaries, if they come to testify before the committee, will be the sole person to testify. If you're below a cabinet-level secretary, we're not going to separate you out into your own panel.
"But the TSA, different than others that we've had -- I would remind you that we've had a variety of other people come before this committee, who sit side by side with regular people from the outside, from the private sector. And so, unfortunately, the TSA has refused, and Mr. Carraway has refused the committee's invitation to appear before Congress.
"We've been working on this since the first part of April. They've had plenty of notice. And up until late, late, late yesterday, he was going to be here -- if it was a separate panel. But now, because we are not going to waste this committee's time, we are not going to waste members' time, they are not sitting here today, and we will have less of a hearing because of it. It's an embarrassment that they would do that. They make these decisions themselves.
"But that is not the way it is going to work around here. TSA had said, well, maybe we'll give you somebody else. It's not the TSA's decision as to who Congress calls to testify. That is not their decision. It is the decision of Congress to understand and be informed by those that they invite before Congress. But that's where we find ourselves today."
"This is a very important oversight hearing," Mica said, noting that taxpayers spend about $7 billion a year on TSA activities.
The hearing focused on a inspector general's report which found numerous, serious failures and lapses in TSA's ability to perform almost all of its functions, including passenger and baggage screening.
Ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called the hearing "very important," and said he agreed that Mr. Carraway "ought to be here."
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) asked if the committee would subpoena Carraway. "The fact that the gentleman is not here sort of feeds into the whole narrative here that we have a bureaucracy that's not really responding to the problem that's out there."
Cummings said he's asked Chaffetz to "set a date certain" for Carraway to appear, but he indicated that a subpoena may result if Homeland Security Department and TSA continue to refuse the committee's request to appear.
John Roth, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, told the panel that TSA has an "incredibly difficult" mission in screening about 1.8 million passengers and about 3 million carry-on bags at 450 airports nationwide every single day. "TSA cannot afford to miss a single, genuine threat without potentially catastrophic consequences," he said in his opening statement.
"Unfortunately, although nearly 14 years have passed since TSA’s inception, we remain deeply concerned about its ability to execute its important mission."
Roth noted that since 2004, the IG has published more than 115 audit and inspection reports about TSA’s programs and operations, yet the IG still finds vulnerabilty in TSA's ability to detect weapons and explosives at checkpoints. It also finds deficiencies in TSA's security technology; in its workforce performance (including training, management and following protocols); and how TSA buys, deploys and maintains its equipment.