Transportation Security Administration and law enforcement agencies participate in Operation RAILSAFE at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station on Sept. 3, 2015. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

PERSPECTIVE: Why TSA and Others on Front Line Are the Ultimate Shutdown Cardholders

With the record-breaking government shutdown continuing and no end in sight, we are truly at an unprecedented crossroads. It seems as if all sides have boxed themselves into un-maneuverable corners where “compromise” has become the dirtiest of words and is considered the worst thing of all – “a weakness.”

This is political brinksmanship at its utmost. The president has long bellowed about his desired wall for the U.S.-Mexico border from almost the first day of his presidential campaign. Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) have, for all intents and purposes, said “no way!” to it, even before holding their current positions. Caught in the middle are federal employees, contractors and their families, along with countless other small businesses and operations that depend on their respective jobs to keep themselves afloat.

These are the real-life chips in a high-stakes card game between two immovable political forces who are committed to not blinking or folding their cards and allowing the other player to claim victory in any shape or form. There’s enough blame to go around on all sides for this ongoing and exacerbating political circus, but in this high-stakes political card game the ultimate cardholder may be the TSA screeners and other front-line employees.

These are the front-line forces that work 24/7, 365 to protect the traveling public from any number of threats. We know from 9/11 the vengeful and suicidal tactics terrorists will take to strike the homeland. The regular weekly updates that TSA shares and were so aptly chronicled by beloved “Blogger Bob” detail the serious and often jaw-dropping things that people try to take on board planes. While TSA and other DHS components have had more than their fair share of well-publicized frustrations, errors and occasional missteps, TSA, its screeners and other DHS front-line forces have been exemplary in protecting us from harm.

While TSA’s jobs may seem monotonous, especially to anyone who travels frequently, given all the luggage and people screening they do day in and day out, what they and other homeland frontline forces do is important, lifesaving and homeland sustaining.

So what do you think would happen if all the uncompensated TSA screeners (and other DHS frontline forces) called in sick and didn’t show up to work?

From the beginning of the shutdown, TSA and DHS have been ever-diligent in reporting that airport operations are functioning normally despite media reports of TSA employees calling in sick – because they are not getting paid. Let’s face facts: at this point the screeners on duty in our airports and other frontline forces are not just fulfilling their professional duties as well as their oaths of service, they are going WAY BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY when they are not being paid to perform those homeland-securing assignments.

Getting paid is certainly “positive reinforcement” for doing the job you’ve been hired to perform. But even with the assured guarantee that they will be paid for their services when the government eventually reopens, the longer this shutdown goes on, the more likely more it is that screeners and other frontline forces will have to leave their jobs for other positions that can pay them regularly like a normal employer does.

So imagine this: What if all of the screeners and frontline forces just stopped coming into work?

If that is TSA, the screening lines at the airports would stretch not only out the door but out onto the tarmac because a handful of airport guards (who are not TSA employees) are drafted into last-minute service and have to do all the screening. If that were to happen, flights would not be able to take off on time – or at all, because passengers and baggage would not have been adequately screened. When those flights can’t take off, planes are parked, hotels aren’t occupied, restaurants and service industries don’t have seats and tables filled and cascading and dire economic dominoes start to fall one after another.

That’s an ugly picture to paint, and would be made only uglier if someone were to pull a 9/11-esque attack should those screeners not be in place and something like that were to occur. No one wants that happen – not any TSA screener, the president, Speaker Pelosi, Sen. Schumer or any other person.

But the truth is, the longer this shutdown goes on and the longer screeners and other DHS frontline employees (e.g., Coasties, Border Patrol, ICE agents, USSS, etc.) and their families go without paychecks, the more fragile security operations become at our airports, ports of entry, critical infrastructures and elsewhere.

From its beginning nearly 20 years ago, DHS has said that homeland security begins at home.  Part of that effort has been messaging: asking people to prepare and make plans to look after themselves and their families. From several days of non-perishable items to have on hand, some cash reserves, and communications to loved ones, we’ve asked them to “be ready.”

So how can we expect our screeners, our Coasties, FEMA employees, Secret Service members, Border Patrol and ICE agents – any of our other homeland team members – “be ready” and protect our homeland when their own homes cannot be secured because “we the people” and our government have failed to look out for them and their security?

I don’t think it is debatable to say government shutdown is a colossal leadership failure of both political parties, both houses of Congress, the executive branch and more.

There is no political victory for anyone when the costs of the battle jeopardize our homeland security because we did not help secure the homes of those who secure us. By every measure, that is failure.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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