AUSTIN, Texas – Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to revive a Texas bill criminalizing “intrusive” pat downs by airport security personnel may score him and his presidential aspirations points with conservative activists, but it also is likely to reignite a fight with federal officials who have threatened to ground flights over the issue.
It’s the kind of Washington-trampling-states’-rights battle on which Perry has built a career. The nation’s longest-serving governor has said Americans should be more aware of, and defend themselves against, the expanding role of government in their lives.
Texas’ pat downs measure died during the state’s regular legislative session after federal authorities indicated passage would result in canceled flights. Perry, who previously said he didn’t think the bill had enough support, on Monday bowed to pressure and ordered it placed on the Legislature’s agenda for a special session running through June 29.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Greg Soule said Tuesday that advanced imaging technology and pat downs are the most effective way to detect threats such as explosives “made completely of plastics, liquids and gels, which are designed to circumvent metal detectors.”
“Should a bill pass that limits the ability of TSA and its employees to perform its responsibilities and jeopardizes the safety of the public, we will take whatever legal action is appropriate to ensure travelers are safe when they fly from Texas or any other state,” Soule said.
The measure passed by the Texas House during the regular legislative session would have made it a criminal offense for officials conducting traveler pat downs to touch “the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of another person,” including through clothing.
John E. Murphy, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, then wrote a letter to both legislative chambers saying the bill would interfere with TSA’s ability to ensure travelers’ safety.
Murphy wrote that if the measure became law, the federal government probably would seek to block it with an emergency stay and “unless or until such a stay were granted, TSA would likely be required to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew.”
The bill then stalled in the Texas Senate, prompting a series of small but particularly boisterous protests in the halls of the Capitol.
With debate on the issue resuming, Daryl Fields, a spokesman for Murphy’s office in San Antonio, said he doubted another letter would be forthcoming.
“The previous letter, obviously, speaks for itself,” Fields said.