During a recent congressional hearing on air cargo security, one message dominated: frustrated Members of the House Homeland Security Committee wanted to know why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may fall short of the 100 percent screening of all air cargo by August of 2010.

Although TSA cannot yet verify that it has met the February 2009 deadline to screen 50 percent of all cargo aboard passenger aircraft, it is working on a verification system and expects to have it in place soon. The agency has made significant progress to date, including screening 100 percent of air cargo carried on narrow-bodied aircraft; revising or eliminating most screening exemptions for domestic air cargo; and creating the Certified Cargo Screening Program, an approach that relies on securing the supply chain from the point of origin until shipping.

Members of the committee challenged TSA’s claim that it had met the deadline to screen 50% of air cargo by February 2009, and demanded to know why the agency is likely to miss the far more challenging congressional mandate – to screen 100 percent of all cargo by August 2010. Meeting the 50 percent benchmark for cargo shipped domestically is one thing. Meeting 100 percent and including all air cargo coming into the United States from abroad is a much higher bar.

The 100 percent deadline involves complexities that impact the flow of commerce that is essential to the U.S. and world economies. One major stumbling block to meeting this high threshold is that the proper technology does not yet exist to screen large cargo pallets. Additionally, our international partners disagree with Congress’s questionable idea of moving away from a risk-based security model towards an approach that requires indiscriminate scanning or screening of every piece of cargo in an effort to prevent every single threat. Foreign governments bristle at the idea that the U.S. Government would unilaterally dictate trade policy to them and abandon its oft touted risk based approach.

Despite these obvious challenges, Congress continues to demand results. It’s not that they fail to understand the facts at hand; it’s that they operate in a politically-charged environment that tempts them to substitute emotional rhetoric for a rational, reasoned approach to security. And so even as the private sector strives mightily to meet the unrealistic demands of Congress, their elected officials continue to question their motives and capabilities.

Congress’ skepticism was most evident in its examination of the Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP), a voluntary program that spreads the screening process across the supply chain by allowing shippers and forwarders to screen and secure cargo at their facilities prior to tendering it at the airport. In order to participate, shippers must be certified by TSA to ensure compliance with a rigorous set of security standards.

CCSP is one of the most promising ideas to emerge from TSA’s efforts to collaborate with the private sector on finding flexible ways to meet Congress’ mandates. Yet during the hearing, former committee member Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), who was one of the primary drivers of the 100-percent screening/scanning provisions, challenged the efficacy of the CCSP and suggested new legislation may be necessary.

While the exact composition of potential new legislation is unknown, some stakeholders have begun making the argument that the only solution is for the government to federalize the cargo screening process, similar to the way in which the government manages baggage screening at airports. Federalizing the cargo screening process, however, would be a drastic and short-sighted solution that would further erode our proven risk-based inspection strategy.

There is still time to inject common sense into the Washington debate, but those in private industry must understand that such rational reasoning will not prevail on its own. We have seen the short sighted “solutions” that emerge when Congress is left to its own devices, without relying on the counsel of the private sector and experienced security experts.

The private sector has a tremendous opportunity to offer flexible solutions that improve security, meet the intent of the 9/11 Act and keep commerce moving, but it must be willing to proactively engage in this public debate. In short, it must lead.

Asa Hutchinson is the Chairman of the Safe Commerce Coalition and served as the nation’s first Undersecretary of Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security.

Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the May 2009 edition of Air Cargo World.