ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Time is running out for states to comply with the REAL ID Act. That's the law that sets tighter standards for issuing driver's licenses. The Department of Homeland Security says no state is on track to be in full compliance before the current deadline of December 31st. And without that compliance, travelers could face long lines at airport security checkpoints because they will no longer be able to use their licenses as ID.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: REAL ID was approved in 2005 to address one of the concerns of the 9/11 Commission: that driver's licenses were too easy to obtain. So the law set up some exacting standards for licenses. Applicants would be required to submit birth certificates and states would have to verify them. An applicant's immigration status would have to be validated.
But states have long had problems with REAL ID. There's the cost, some $4 billion - most of which states have to find themselves. And they say some of the standards are impossible to meet. For example, no database exists on a national level to check birth certificates, nor are the states able to share drivers' records with each other, something else REAL ID requires.
David Quam is with the National Governors Association.
Mr. DAVID QUAM (Director of Federal Relations, National Governors Association): States have argued about REAL ID since its inception, that this cannot be done, that it's too costly and it mandates too many specifics. We can do it better.
NAYLOR: In fact, 13 states have passed laws prohibiting full compliance with REAL ID on the basis of cost or privacy issues. Doing it better, as far as the states are concerned, means an alternative piece of legislation called PASS ID. It's like REAL ID but with some key differences. Birth certificates wouldn't have to be electronically verified. And there would be federal funds to help states pay for the changes.
PASS ID has been approved by a Senate panel but has not yet made it to the floor. And with health care taking up the Senate's time, PASS ID's prospects appear dim in the coming weeks.
So at a hearing last week, Democratic Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico pleaded with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to extend the December 31st deadline.
Senator TOM UDALL (Democrat, New Mexico): The uncertainty surrounding what your department may or may not do if the legislation is not signed into law is creating confusion for people in the state that are not in compliance. This is causing a great deal of anxiety with the constituents who are seeing news reports they'll need a passport in order to travel on a commercial airline in the U.S. after the first of the year.
NAYLOR: Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, is sympathetic to opponents of REAL ID. In fact, she used to be one herself. But she says waiving the law's requirements, as was done just last year, is the wrong way to go.
Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): One of the reasons we had REAL ID, and now PASS ID, is because the 9/11 Commission had a recommendation that we improve the security quality of driver's licenses. And because REAL ID has been rejected by the states just by granting extension after extension after extension, we're not getting to the pathway to have more secure driver's licenses.
NAYLOR: Under the current provisions of REAL ID, travelers from states not in compliance with the law would, among other things, not be able to use their driver's licenses as IDs to board commercial flights. That would cause massive travel disruptions during the holiday season, requiring additional screening of virtually all travelers. No one expects that to happen. But like Napolitano, the governors want to see the new law approved, rather than once again extending REAL ID's deadline.
Mr. QUAM: It appears it could be extended again, but really, you're putting a Band-Aid on a pretty big open wound. What the governors have said for a long time is you need to change the law. The law is flawed.
NAYLOR: But time is running out for a congressional fix, making a last-minute, blanket waiver of REAL ID more and more likely.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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