Airport security is now entangled in the debate about how to pay for President Trump’s border wall.
The House of Representatives will vote as soon as next month on a plan to significantly reduce funding for one security program and eliminate it for another one. The White House proposed the spending cuts last March in a budget that allocated $1.6 billion to pay for the wall President Trump has promised to build on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The legislation would scale back a special unit of roving security officers known as VIPR teams, an acronym for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. They have become a familiar sight for passengers since 9/11 and often patrol airports with dogs.
The TSA-led groups deploy all over the country to airports, train stations, other transportation hubs and special events that are considered high targets or under specific threats. VIPR teams, for example, helped provide security during President Trump’s inauguration.
The House plan would reduce VIPR from 31 teams to eight, with a loss of 277 full time employees, saving $43 million.
A second cut would eliminate the Law Enforcement Officer Reimbursement Program, a $45 million fund that reimburses more than 300 airports for some of the cost of placing armed local law enforcement alongside TSA checkpoint officers who do not carry guns.
The impact of ending the reimbursement program would likely affect local budgets more than security. Airports contacted by Scripps News said it would force them to find money in their local budgets for the officers. Reducing security is almost certainly not an option because airports have agreements with TSA to keep a minimum level of law enforcement on duty. Violations can range from $11,000 in penalties to TSA barring airports from operating commercial flights.
Southwest Florida International Airport receives $131,400 from the Law Enforcement Officer Reimbursement Program. It partially pays for two full-time law enforcement officers and accounts for a little more than 10 percent of the airport’s local law enforcement budget.
The plan to reduce the security funding originated in Trump’s budget proposal first outlined in March. It was part of a proposed 6.4 percent increase in Homeland Security spending that included the $1.6 billion for the border wall.
Democrats accuse the Trump administration of trying to help fund the wall by taking dollars away from airport safety.
“Security at airports is a shared responsibility and this is no time for the federal government to pull back on its commitments,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, during a hearing.
A letter to DHS signed by 21 Senate Democrats in April warned against cuts to TSA and other agencies “in furtherance of President Trump’s quest to build a concrete wall along our southern border.”
Airports are now pressing Congress to continue funding the law enforcement officer reimbursement program.
“This program is vital to ensuring that we are able to maintain current staffing levels at checkpoints which are focal areas for passenger congestion and critical to safety and security,” stated John Potter, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, in a letter to congressional leaders. The authority oversees airports near the nation’s capital. The federal reimbursement pays 40 percent of the costs to employ six officers at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.
Mindy Kershner, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati’s airport, echoed the thoughts of other airport officials across the country who said the reimbursement is important “to provide the needed police presence and response at our TSA security checkpoint.”
The amount of money DHS gives each airport for police hiring depends on size. Denver International Airport received $1.6 million over five years, about $321,000 each year, an airport spokesman said.
Some of the smallest airports with passenger flights also rely on the funding. Hagerstown Regional Airport in Maryland receives $10,000 to keep one officer on duty when passenger flights are at the gate.
“Ten thousand dollars is a big deal for us,” airport director Phil Ridenour said. His airport’s TSA security plan requires the officer to be on duty when passenger flights are at the airport. “We really depend on that money. What we’re going to have to do is, as they say, rob Peter to pay Paul.”
The airports lost a key vote when the House Appropriations Committee approved the cuts in a Department of Homeland Security funding bill last month. The full House will consider the legislation when lawmakers return from the summer recess. Even if it passes, the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.
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While airports would still have to keep minimum numbers of law enforcement on duty, there would be no replacement for the VIPR teams sliced out of the budget.
“TSA has taken a broad look at the staffing and funding for VIPR teams and identified efficiencies in the program that will reduce the VIPR program from 31 teams to eight teams that will focus on areas of highest risk,” DHS’ budget proposal said.
Airport leaders have said recent attacks prove air travel is still a target. There was the shooting earlier this year at Fort Lauderdale airport baggage claim, the stabbing of an airport police officer in Flint, Mich., in June, and in 2015 a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy killed a man spraying wasp repellent and swinging a machete at passengers and TSA officers as he tore toward the departure gates.
“It's very troubling that the administration and Congress would propose cuts to this funding when there have been attacks in public areas of airports,” said Christopher Bidwell, a vice president at Airports Council International – North America, an airport owners and operators association.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions about the budget and declined our request for an interview.
The DHS budget outline released in March said the affected airport security programs were designed to incentivize local law enforcement patrols “that should already be a high priority for state and local partners.”
John Kelly, then Secretary of Homeland Security, defended the proposed airport security cuts during a Senate hearing on June 6.
“In a perfect world, I’d love to fund everything,” Kelly told members of the Senate homeland security committee. “But 15 years on (since 9/11) we are in a different place locally and federally in protecting the homeland. Again, in a perfect world I’d love to fund everything.”
Patrick Terpstra is a Scripps News Washington Bureau national investigative reporter. You can email him at Patrick.Terpstra@scripps.com.