By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
The bipartisan budget deal struck in Congress last week contains no broad-based tax increases, but it aims to generate billions in new revenue by essentially nickel-and-diming American taxpayers.
People who travel on commercial airliners are some of the hardest hit.
As part of the overall budget deal, Congress increased the passenger security fee, a surcharge added to all airline tickets, by 120 percent. Starting July 1, passengers traveling through American airports will pay $5.60 per one-way trip, up from the current fee of $2.50 per trip.
Last year, the fee generated about $1.8 billion to offset about 20 percent of the Transportation Security Administration’s $8 billion budget. With the increase, the fee on travelers will offset about 43 percent of the budget next year, according to U.S. House Budget Committee projections.
But the new fee — unlike the original — is not tied directly to the costs of the TSA or other airline security line items in the budget.
Instead, the revenue is headed for the U.S. Treasury to offset restored funding cuts from the sequester.
“I’m really disappointed that we ended up with a security fee that looks more like a tax,” Charlie Leocha, co-founder and president of the Consumer Travel Alliance, told Watchdog.org on Friday. “We ended up with something that should be a fee and they’re treating it like a tax.”
Leocha said the higher fees fall directly on vacationing families, businessmen and the middle class.
Airlines for America, which represents major commercial carriers, estimated the higher fee will cost passengers about $700 million annually while not producing any additional benefits in terms of safety.
But Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, have been pushing for an increase in the fee for years, as the agency’s budget has grown.
The $2.50 fee was created in 2002 along with the TSA. At that time, the agency had a budget of $4.7 billion and employed about 56,000 people.
Last year, the agency ran a budget of nearly $8 billion and had 67,000 employees.
If the TSA had its way, travelers would be paying as much as $14 per trip in security fees. That’s what the agency told the Government Accountability Office it wanted, according to a 2009 report.
The security fee is just one of 17 taxes and fees travelers pay when buying an airline ticket. In fiscal 2012, air travelers paid more than $18 billion in taxes and fees.
Last week, as the budget deal neared, lobbyists for airlines, airline workers and consumers pushed back against the proposed fee increase, but it was included in the final budget deal anyway.
“It’s inappropriate for Congress to use airline passengers as an ATM when it needs more money,” Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, said in a statement.
The group handed out air-sick bags at airports with a printed message asking travelers if they were “sick” of higher taxes and fees.
The airline industry has spent more than $20 million on lobbying in Washington during 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks such expenses.
Airlines, however, did get a little bit of a break.
But as travelers get hit with more fees, what exactly are they getting in return?
In 2012, the TSA blew more than $180 million on ineffective passenger scanning machines. It now has 5,700 pieces of security equipment in storage, according to an audit released this year.
The GAO says the TSA wasted $900 million over several years pursuing an ineffective passenger screening program designed to “spot terrorists.”
But the biggest problem with the TSA, according to U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., is its bloated administrative bureaucracy – quite an accomplishment for a government agency barely more than a decade old.
Mica should know. He’s one of the lawmakers who wrote the legislation creating the TSA in the aftermath of 9/11. He has since called the agency his “bastard child.”
The agency has seen a surge in employee misconduct recently. A GOA report released in July found a 26 percent increase in documented cases of misconduct over the past three years.
Nearly one-third of those cases involved employees who simply did not show up for work when they were supposed to, while another 20 percent were security failures that put passengers and cargo at risk, the GAO found.
“The report confirms our worst suspicions that TSA employee misconduct has spun out of control,” Mica said in a statement after the report was released. “It is time to reassess TSA’s role in the aviation screening process and return the Agency to security and intelligence responsibilities and remove them from the personnel and human resources businesses at which they are failing.”
The TSA did not respond to calls seeking comment, and it has a policy of not commenting on legislation.
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org. Follow him on Twitter at @EricBoehm87