The federal government has again postponed until 2013 the deadline for all states to be in compliance with the REAL ID program, which sets minimum national standards for drivers licenses and identification cards.
The move has been cheered by states that see REAL ID as a costly mandate from the federal government. However, key House Republicans criticized the extension as not in the best interests of national security.
The REAL ID law, a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, was passed by Congress in 2005 and supported by President George W. Bush as a nationwide identification system aimed at stopping terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants. The 9/11 terrorists had dozens of driver’s licenses that they used to rent cars and board airplanes.
The measure requires states to enhance their identification system for drivers licenses and seeks to create a nationwide database of data supplied by the departments of motor vehicles in 50 states. REAL ID-compliant driver licenses have special anti-forgery features and can only be issued only after verification of birth certificates, Social Security numbers and immigration status.
Under the REAL ID law, state-issued licenses and identification cards that do not meet federal standards will not be accepted for federal purposes such as boarding commercial aircraft, gaining access to federal facilities or entering nuclear power plants.
The law had an original deadline for states of May 11, 2008 but federal officials extended it to May 11 of this year. Now Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has again extended the states’ deadline by 21 months — to January 15, 2013.
More than a dozen states have passed laws rejecting the REAL ID, mainly out of concern over the costs to states of implementing the upgraded licensing systems, despite some federal financial assistance. Budget concerns have only been heightened by the recession.
Some opponents also object to REAL ID out of privacy concerns.
As of December, 2009, as many as 36 states were in no position to comply with the law, according to the National Governors Association.
DHS said that since then states have been slowed in their implementation not only by diminished state budgets but also by the uncertainty throughout much of 2009 and 2010 about action on the PASS ID Act, which would have modified some of the requirements of REAL ID. States held off making expenditures to comply with requirements in the event they were going to be undone if Congress approved PASS ID, says DHS. Now that PASS ID seems unlikely to be enacted, DHS said it anticipates states will refocus on compliance.
Napolitano said that sticking to the 2011 deadline would disqualify state-issued licenses and that this would “severely disrupt” commercial aviation as travelers would either have to obtain and use alternative federally-approved approved documents or submit to additional screening to pass through security at airports.
“Thus, it would be contrary to the public interest to inflict a significant and substantial burden on the traveling public and the travel industry,” DHS said in announcing its extension.
The National Governors Association supports the extension.
“Governors have long said that REAL ID, in its current form, is unworkable. That has not changed,” the group said in a statement.
The National Conference of State Legislatures also welcomed the deadline extension.
“We look forward to working with the department in the coming months on additional guidance for states on compliance and to ensure the act is implemented in a cost effective and feasible manner with maximum safety and minimum inconvenience for all Americans,” NCSL said in a statement.
Despite the opposition of many states to REAL ID, House Republicans wrote to Napolitano opposing the delay.
“The goal of the REAL ID Act is to prevent another 9/11-type attack by disrupting terrorist travel,” wrote Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex.), who is House Judiciary chairman. “The REAL ID Act has a multitude of national security, public safety, and immigration benefits, and has helped states upgrade their licenses. Unfortunately the Administration has not only granted extensions of REAL ID implementation deadlines, but has pushed for a repeal of REAL ID.”
Smith was joined by Rep. Peter King, R- N.Y., House Homeland Security chairman, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., terrorism subcommittee chairman.
Smith said the timing for such a delay is “worse than ever” given that last week authorities disrupted a terrorist plot in Texas by a suspect who wrote in his journal that to avoid detection, he would need multiple drivers’ licenses and a forged U.S. birth certificate.
“The Administration should not prolong REAL ID implementation. By doing so, they disregard the law of the land. Delaying REAL ID unnecessarily places Americans’ lives at risk and threatens national security,” Smith argued.
However, Senate Judiciary panel chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, who opposed the original law, praised the decision to delay implementation.
“This law has saddled the states with enormous costs and burdened citizens with the prospect of what effectively would be a national identification card. When so many states are struggling with extremely difficult budget choices, the last thing they need is to think about how to pay for this unfunded federal mandate,” Leahy said in a statement.