Even though the TSA brought in roughly $14.5 million each day of the 35-day shutdown, for a total of $507 million, the agency's 51,000 employees went unpaid the entire time, Judicial Watch reports. The money comes from the September 11 Security Fee, a "congressionally mandated security fees to help finance the increased cost of securing the nation's aviation transportation system," the TSA says.
The fee is $5.60 per one-way trip and $11.20 for a round trip. "The revenue generated from these security fees is utilized to help ensure the safe and efficient flow of people and commerce," the TSA further notes. However, that's not really true: Congress has redirected part of those funds to finance other projects, such as payments on the national debt.
Let's rewind to 2011. Then-US President Barack Obama was forced by a powerful Republican opposition in Congress to negotiate over the expanding national debt, which they credited to social programs like the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." An 11th-hour agreement in early August narrowly avoided the prospect of a default, as the Treasury warned that "the borrowing authority of the United States will be exhausted" at that time. That agreement produced the Budget Control Act of 2011, which extended the debt ceiling but mandated massive cuts on spending before another extension could be granted. If they weren't agreed upon by Congress, they would automatically kick in on January 1, 2013, implementing indiscriminate reductions in spending across the entire budget in a process dubbed "sequestration."
Sequestration forced Congress to restructure the TSA's funding structure, and in December of that year, a bipartisan funding bill increased the September 11 fee from $2.50 to its present $5.60 fee per passenger, shoveling over $18 billion in payments made by air travelers into fields that have nothing to do with air travel, a US Travel Association handout notes.
"It's a huge money grab, and we're against it," Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at Airlines for America (A4A), the trade group representing most large airlines, told NBC at the time. She noted that passengers would be paying up to a billion dollars a year, "and the icing on the cake for air passengers is that most of those fees aren't going back into the TSA program to improve security."
In February of last year, US President Donald Trump floated the idea of increasing the fee again to $6.60 in 2018 and then $8.25 in 2020, but A4A fought back, with A4A CEO Nicholas Calio warning that "increasing taxes in any form will add to the cost of flying for millions of Americans, curtail job growth and limit the options small and medium communities currently enjoy… Billions of dollars have already been diverted from aviation security to go towards deficit reduction or other sectors of government," according to USA Today.
Judicial Watch notes that Congress never authorized the release of these funds to pay TSA employees, though the blog notes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said "our nation's leaders have no greater responsibility" than to ensure their jobs are done properly.
CNN reported that hundreds of TSA officers, who as essential personnel were required to show up to their jobs during the shutdown and work without pay, called in sick. A TSA official told the news outlet in early January that 25 to 30 officers were calling out on any given day, which averages to one employee in every 16 not showing up.
"Security effectiveness will not be compromised, and performance standards will not change," a TSA spokesperson told The Hill on January 4, about two weeks into the shutdown. "Wait times may be affected depending on the number of call outs."
The Washington Post noted on January 17 that TSA callouts had so burdened the agency that three major airports — Houston, Miami and Atlanta, the lattermost of which is the world's busiest airport by passenger traffic — were forced to operate on contingency plans.
Miami shuttered a concourse one weekend, and Houston closed a major TSA checkpoint, while passengers passing through Atlanta were subjected to hour-and-a-half waits.
TSA Administrator David P. Pokoske was forced to use "unlapsed funds in specific TSA accounts" to scrounge up enough money to issue what he called a "bonus" during Christmas holiday, but many of those hadn't even arrived in employees' bank accounts by the time the shutdown ended on January 25, CNBC noted.