Washington (CNN) -- One year after the TSA administrator brought efforts to privatize airport screening to a virtual standstill, Congress has kick-started the program, opening the door for other airports to "opt out" of TSA screening.
A provision in the just-passed FAA reauthorization bill requires TSA chief John Pistole to approve airport requests to privatize their screeners unless he determines it would harm security.
That is likely to open the doors to further privatization, since Pistole has said private screening and government screening is "comparable."
Currently, 16 airports, the largest being San Francisco International Airport, have private screeners under the Transportation Security Administration's Screening Partnership Program. The screeners are overseen by TSA supervisors, use the same X-ray and scanning equipment and wear similar uniforms. But they work for private companies.
One year ago, Pistole announced he was freezing the program, saying he believed airport screening to be a federal responsibility, and saying privatization hurt TSA flexibility and added to administrative costs. Pistole said he would approve additional airports only if there was a "clear and substantial" advantage to the federal government.
But the TSA checkpoints -- and the 50,000 jobs they represent -- were an irresistible battlefield for free-market Republicans and union-supporting Democrats.
At a hearing Monday on the issue, Democrats lamented the provision in the FAA reauthorization, saying it signals a return to the days before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when private companies provided airport security.
"Let us not forget the lessons of the past ... The 9/11 day of horror was partly on the watch of privatized screeners," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
Republicans and an association for private security companies called that argument specious. Private screeners were adhering to standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration, they said.
Republicans depicted the current system as inefficient, and said the bloat extends to the TSA oversight of privatized airports. "There are certain airports where contractors do screening and TSA is just there to oversee the screen(ing) process; there are upwards of 50 TSA employees on the payroll," said subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama. "Having 50-plus TSA officials in a single airport where they are not responsible for conducting screening is just plain overkill and it's costing the taxpayer huge amounts of money," he said.
Said Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, "I want to get you out of the personnel business and into the security business."
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, called the hearing "a day late and a dollar short," noting the passage of the FAA reauthorization. Congress was "micromanaging" Pistole by stripping him of discretion to determine which airports are privatized.
Thompson asked Pistole whether privatized screeners performed better than their federal counterparts.
"I believe that they all -- every assessment is -- that they perform comparably to the federalized work force both in terms of security and in terms of customer engagement," Pistole answered.
The 16 airports that use private screeners are, San Francisco; Kansas City, Missouri; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Rochester, New York; Tupelo, Mississippi; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Key West, Florida; Sonoma, California; Roswell, New Mexico; and seven small airports in Montana.
Pistole last week approved privatization of the West Yellowstone Airport, a seasonal airport in Montana that has relied on a flown-in core of screeners. He rejected two other airports.