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Federal Threat Shuts Down TSA "Groping" Bill

A threat from the federal government to shut down Texas airports or cancel flights may have killed legislation by Tea Party conservatives in the Capitol to prohibit federal agents from conducting "invasive searches."

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A threat from the federal government to shut down Texas airports or cancel flights may have killed legislation by Tea Party conservatives in the Texas Capitol to prohibit federal Transportation Security Administration agents from conducting "invasive searches." 

“I don’t cave in to heavy handed threats by the federal government,” said an angry Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the Senate sponsor of the bill, who ultimately withdrew the bill. 

House Bill 1937, which was passed by the House earlier this month, would make it a misdemeanor offense for a federal security agent to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly [touch] the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of the other person, including touching through clothing, or touching the other person in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person.” 

Two TSA officials visited Patrick at the Capitol earlier today to discuss the legislation. They warned him that the legislation “could close down all the airports in Texas,” he said. After their departure, U.S. Attorney John E. Murphy sent a letter to Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst saying the bill would “conflict directly with federal law” and that if it became law, “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” until the agency could seek a court order stopping the measure from being carried out.

Despite the threats from the federal government, Patrick believed he had enough votes in the Senate — 30 to be precise — to suspend the rules and pass the legislation. Dewhurst allowed the measure to be brought up for debate. But when senators began to discuss the bill on the floor, the support wavered.    

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who voted for the bill in committee, said he still agreed with Patrick’s intent but could not vote for the bill because it preempts federal law. “The bill makes it a crime for a [federal TSA employee] … to perform a federal screening that he or she is required by federal law to perform.”

Realizing he ultimately did not have the votes, Patrick decided to withdraw the bill, but not before making his passion for state autonomy known: “There was a time in this state, there was a time in our history, where we stood up to the federal government and we did not cower to rules and policies that invaded the privacy of Texans.”

After the bill was withdrawn, senators approached state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, the House author of the bill, who was watching from the Senate rail. They said they were looking for a way to delay the effective date of the bill (which otherwise would be immediate) to prevent the federal government from closing Texas airports.

“They’re basically saying, unless you allow us to grope your genitals, you can’t fly. I hope Texans would say come and show us the law,” Simpson said. “This is a Gonzalez moment. ‘Come and take it.’”

Patrick blamed the failure of the bill on Dewhurst. “When you stand on the Senate floor and the president of the Senate calls the bill up, he’s not supposed to be working against the bill while you’re debating it,” Patrick said. “This was a case of the federal government bullying Texas, and apparently they bullied the lieutenant governor.”

Mike Walz, a spokesman for Dewhurst, said that while Hinojosa was voicing his concerns, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, approached Dewhurst at the podium with a list of 12 senators who had withdrawn support of the bill in light of the threat to close airports or cancel flights. He said Dewhurst saw the letter from the U.S. attorney earlier today but believed the Senate had enough votes to pass the bill when he brought it onto the floor.

“Our law abiding citizens should not be subjected to invasive searches that are embarrassing and humiliating,” Patrick said. "Our country is saying there’s too much federal government in our lives, and this was a chance for Texas to take the lead and probably change the policy of TSA, because does anyone think that they’re really going to close down all the airports tomorrow?” 

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State government 82nd Legislative Session Dan Patrick David Dewhurst Texas Legislature