Erroll Southers, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, kicked his new career off in a very encouraging way today at his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He was well-spoken, confident and clearly articulated his knowledge of the security business. And this is encouraging because a positive relationship with Congress may be the only criteria by which his tenure is judged.

Several of his predecessors made needed security improvements and implemented new ideas, but experienced short-lived careers. Two common factors in their demise was their inability to effectively communicate their plans and objectives to Congress and to know which battles to pick with Congress.

Mr. Southers immediate predecessor was particularly good at knowing when to stand firm, but more importantly HOW to stand firm. Everyone approaches diplomacy differently and Mr. Southers will need to find his approach quickly. A certain amount of acquiescence is required, particularly when Members’ parochial issues are at stake.

For the most part it looks as though he understands this given the manner in which he engaged the Committee, and the thoroughness with which he answered their questions.

Thankfully, Mr. Southers’ responses were far more interesting than the questions, which were un-noteworthy except for their lack of creativity.  Questioning during TSA hearings in general have not matured over the years and follow a predictable pattern: They remain parochial in nature. A specific customer complaint, usually involving the impoliteness of one Transportation Security Officer, is beaten over the witnesses head. Special interests plant word-for-word the same Registered Traveler query – usually posed thoughtfully by the Member who most recently took the oath of office.

However, Mr. Southers deftly used several mundane questions as an opportunity to express his vision for TSA and to expand on the ideas of “risk-based and intelligence driven” security. He gently and with diplomacy countered the myths of whole body imagers. He explained technology’s value in a risk-based security system. And he discussed the need for stakeholder outreach efforts, “organization values”, and public education.

This is just the beginning so the optimism expressed here should be bathed in caution. Mr. Southers, all the best. Keep smiling. Enjoy the honeymoon. And never forget to frequent Capitol Hill, as dull as it can be sometimes.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More