REAL ID, real resistance

States have legitimate concerns about lack of funding for more secure driver's licenses.

Phew. Mainers will not be turned back at US airports because their driver's licenses don't meet federal identification standards intended to stop terrorists. As of this week, it is the last state to reach a deal over the much-maligned REAL ID program. But that hardly resolves this national issue.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 is a classic case of lawmakers in Washington telling states what to do, and then making them pay for it (an "unfunded mandate"). Many states are resisting compliance – 21 passed some kind of legislation opposed to REAL ID, including several outright refusals to comply.

But the Department of Homeland Security has granted an extension to states from March 31 of this year until Dec. 31, 2009. It says states are at least on the way to complying. The reprieve punts the issue to the next administration, leaving the disagreement unresolved.

In passing the act, Congress tried to do the right thing by following a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission, which urged federal standards for driver's licenses as a way to better secure identification. The ID gives people access to planes and federal buildings, such as courthouses.

Pressure is mounting for more secure IDs to attest that people are who they say they are. The 9/11 Commission cared about stopping terrorists. But Americans also face increasing threats of identity theft, which is why retailers ask for a photo ID along with a credit card. And employers are expected to check the legal status of job applicants to prevent hiring illegal aliens.

More secure personal identification is needed, but was Congress right to turn to state motor vehicle departments to solve a problem of national security?

It's true that in practice, the driver's license is the norm for IDs, and many states use their motor vehicle departments to issue state IDs to folks who don't drive.

But the primary job of these state offices is to ensure safe and licensed driving. REAL ID turns them into immigration and national security offices that must not only demand proof of an applicant's legal residence, but also verify that proof through documents such as a birth certificate or green card. To meet DHS rules, states must add multiple security features to their cards, be able to share data, and improve security standards at their offices, such as running criminal checks on staff.

The price tag for the states? An estimated $4 billion over 10 years, of which only $90 million in federal help has so far been appropriated.

Little discussion went into REAL ID, a de facto national identity card. It was included as a rider to an emergency spending bill for the war on terrorism and tsunami relief and never went through committee debate. Now the nation is reaping the results of nondebate.

Congress is going to have to revisit REAL ID and pay up. Even then, it may encounter pushback over privacy and other issues.

One wonders whether time, money, and political aggravation could have been avoided by, for instance, using the US passport – a travel document which already has a photo ID – as a national ID. Thirty percent of Americans already have them.

In any case, the federal government is deluding itself if it thinks that the extensions have solved this issue. It's far from settled.

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