Today the House Homeland Security committee will take up the issue of screening 100 percent of air cargo security. The private sector, working closely with the TSA, has successfully met the law’s mandate to screen 50% of air cargo by February 2009. This includes 100 percent of air cargo transported on narrow body planes. However, getting to the second half, or to 100%, by August 2010 will be a much more challenging objective.

I suspect this will be the primary message coming out of today’s hearings. Certainly, it was the primary message coming out of the 700 or so audience members at a panel on air cargo screening during last week’s Air Cargo Conference 2009 in Las Vegas.

The challenge of meeting 100 percent screening is also the primary topic of a report to be released today by the Government Accountability Office.

In order to meet the screening mandate while keeping the flow of commerce and air travel moving, Congress must be open to flexible screening methods including inspectors, canines, and securing the chain of custody from the point of origin.

This last option, known as the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), has emerged as an innovative method developed between the private sector and the Transportation Security Administration to meet the overly simplistic demands of Congress that all cargo be screened. The concept behind CCSP is to spread the screening process across the supply chain in an effort to avoid a bottleneck at airports. Shippers and forwarders could meet certain security standards and – once certified by TSA that they have met those standards – screen and secure their cargo at their own facilities prior to tendering it at the airport.

The challenge with the CCSP is to implement it in a way that ensures that the small shippers and forwarders, who have less financial resources, can participate in the program. We don’t want to create a program that inadvertently creates a competitive advantage for some, while placing an unreasonable financial burden on others. There are a number of options to accomplish this, however, including potential government funding to assist with the program.

There are already some in Congress, as well as supporters of the Administration, who are questioning the value of the CCSP, as well as partnership with the private sector in general, as a reliable security model.

They argue that CCSP does not meet the level of security necessary to “secure 100 percent” of all cargo entering the nation’s borders, and they are skeptical that the private sector will not cut corners. Their solution is for the government to federalize the cargo screening process, similar to the way in which the government manages baggage screening at airports.

While federalizing the cargo screening process would potentially solve the problem of the small and mid-sized shippers who may not have the resources to invest in a certified cargo screening facility, it is a drastic and short sighted solution that would further erode our proven risk-based inspection strategy.

We need to find flexible, common-sense solutions to meeting the new mandates that don’t totally disregard the important role that risk-based security plays in our national security model.

Right now, the private sector has a tremendous opportunity to take the lead on offering solutions, but it must engage in this debate. These are times of change in Washington and all policies are up for review and potential alteration. Now is the time for official Washington to move beyond the talking points of establishing a vigorous private-public partnership to secure the homeland, and actually work with the private sector to find solutions. Now is also the time for the leaders of private industry to step forward with good ideas, and not simply wait for Washington to lead the way. We have seen the often politically motivated “solutions” that emerge when Congress is left to its own devices, with no counsel from the men and women working on the front lines of industry.