[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/16/art.demint.gi.jpg caption="DeMint is blocking the appointment of a new TSA chief out of unionization concerns."]Washington (CNN) - Elected officials on Capitol Hill are planning to hold hearings in January to investigate the safety gaps in airline security, made more pronounced since the attempted bombing over Detroit on Christmas Day.
But one important officeholder, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, likely won't be present at any of the hearings - simply because his nomination is being blocked in the Senate.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, has been holding up the confirmation of Erroll Southers to be TSA chief, in an effort to prevent TSA employees from joining a labor union. Southers is a former FBI special agent and counterterrorism expert.
"The attempted terror attack in Detroit is a perfect example of why the Obama Administration should not unionize the TSA and allow our airline security decisions to be dictated by union bosses," DeMint said in a statement. "I hope this incident will lead the President to re-think this policy and put the interests of American travelers ahead of organized labor."
DeMint points to inefficiencies that will arise from the organizing of TSA employees, which he says may ultimately jeopardize the safety of Americans, such as the inability of rewarding exceptional screeners and firing those who are underperforming, the inflexibility to change protocols as emergency situations arise, and the need to require more collective bargaining as new safety mechanisms create new job descriptions.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid contends that Democrats "have been trying to confirm Mr. Southers" since his nomination was approved by two separate Senate committees.
"Sadly the Republican obstructionism of just one person, Senator Demint, prevented TSA from having the leadership in place that the organization deserves," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
But the largest organizer of transportation security officers, the American Federation of Government Employees, disagrees with DeMint's central claims against unionization – citing the unobstructed cooperation by union members of both the New York City police and fire departments in the aftermath of the September 11attacks.
"This is not an issue of security. There is no evidence that labor rights have any effect on transportation security officers," said Emily Ryan, spokeswoman for AFGE.
AFGE represents 12,000 of TSA's nearly 40,000 transportation security officers in many personnel matters, while also overseeing the broader collective bargaining of nearly 40,000 other government employees at the Department of Homeland Security, including the Coast Guard, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"This is a dedicated workforce who see their jobs as important to the security of the nation," said Ryan.
While Southers' nomination is being blocked, there is an acting administrator of the TSA running the agency.