Congress May Revamp Secure I.D. Program

Real ID was intended to set national security standards for state driver's licenses.

Real ID was intended to set national security standards for state driver's licenses. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Remember Real ID? Maybe not, because it never actually became real. It was supposed to set national security standards for state driver's licenses, to make sure you were you — and not someone else.

States face a deadline for compliance at the end of the year. But the states have rebelled against Real ID. Now Congress is looking to modify the law Wednesday in a key Senate committee.

Origin Of Real ID

The idea of making driver's licenses more secure came from the 9/11 Commission. When Congress found out that many of the Sept. 11 hijackers held multiple driver's licenses and aliases, lawmakers decided that states needed to do a better job of preventing fraud and abuse.

But the Real ID Act of 2005 hasn't worked out the way people thought it would.

"Real ID, in a way, is DOA [dead on arrival]," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a recent hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

She added, "The states agree that Real ID is too rigid and needlessly expensive in mandating how states meet their security goals."

State-Level Opposition

The Real ID program says that for every person applying for a driver's license, states are supposed to authenticate that person's birth certificate, Social Security number and citizenship status. Then states are supposed to make electronic copies of that information and link up their databases to prevent people from getting licenses from different states. National Governors Association President Jim Douglas, a Republican from Vermont, says compliance would cost states billions of dollars.

"While the objectives of Real ID are laudable, the law represents an unworkable and an unfunded mandate that fails to make us more secure," Douglas says. "I really believe we need a better mousetrap."

At least 13 states agree. They have passed laws refusing to participate — even when it could mean their state's driver's licenses wouldn't be accepted as identification at airports.

So lawmakers really have no choice but to take a second look, says Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio.

"What everyone ought to understand is that Real ID, five years later, did not get implemented," Voinovich says. "OK? It's not implemented. And why didn't it get implemented? It's because Congress did not sit down with the people impacted by the legislation and get their thoughts on how you could go about making this possible."

A Cheaper Option

Voinovich is backing new legislation by Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, called Pass ID, which would cost less. The Homeland Security Committee plans to consider it Wednesday. It's already raised red flags for some.

"They do not need to undo all of Real ID just to redo most of it under another name," says Janice Kephart of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports strict limits on immigration.

Kephart says she's against the Pass ID bill because it eases up on some expensive verification requirements for some background documents. The legislation also drops a key provision that would make the new licenses required for air travel. That was supposed to be a major incentive to get states onboard.

"It would infuse a tremendous amount of confusion" into the process, she says. "What needs to happen is that Real ID needs to be properly funded and moved forward. If they want to change the name of it to 'Pass ID' — fine, but we do not need a new law."

Ready For A Fight

In the House, the bill's original sponsor says he is ready to fight any attempt to water it down.

"The governors and the states are going to have to step up to the bat and realize they have both a moral, legal and financial responsibility to issue driver's licenses that are secure," Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin says.

But backers of the Pass ID legislation insist the licenses will still be secure. States would not have to link their databases, but they would still have to adopt new licenses that are machine readable and tamperproof. Plus, the Pass ID proposal would give more money to states to get started.

Supporters say with these changes, states are much more likely to comply with a secure ID program.

Correction July 31, 2009

A previous Web version of this story said that Sen. Daniel Akaka is from Alaska. The senator is actually from Hawaii.

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