Bad ideas have a habit of hanging around our nation’s Capitol, where legislators and bureaucrats hope that they will ripen with the passage of time. Thus it has been with the REAL ID Act, passed by the Congress in 2005 with virtually no debate. From the start, the legislation posed major problems for the states, forced to implement its costly mandates; and for privacy experts, concerned with its many privacy invasive provisions. The Bush administration strongly favored the REAL ID program, but it never could get its act together sufficient to drive home the law’s implementation.
Even when the prior administration issued final implementing regulations in early 2008, the net effect was to throw gasoline on the anti-REAL ID forces already smoldering in dozens of state legislatures and governors’ mansions.
The total cost of the program, including for the states to completely revamp their drivers’ license systems, was estimated to run upwards of $23 billion. This fact alone caused several states formally to balk at moving forward in compliance with the law. (Georgia passed legislation in 2007 permitting the governor to delay implementation of the law until proper safeguards could be put in place).
Officials in other states eager to take advantage of the massive information database that would be created by this de facto national identification card system, claimed that states failing to come on board were harming the fight against terrorism. Proponents of the REAL ID rarely fail to remind their audiences that several of the 911 hijackers possessed state-issued drivers licenses procured through false information (as if having Uncle Sam enforce a single, national standard for drivers’ licenses would magically prevent such problems from ever recurring).
Amazingly, however, the grounds well of opposition in the states to REAL ID has carried the day. Earlier this summer, for example, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now head of the Department of Homeland Security (which is responsibility for implementing REAL ID), admitted in testimony before Congress, “REAL ID is D.O.A.”
While a bill to repeal REAL ID has just been introduced in the House by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a new danger is emerging in the Congress. This reflects another, long-revered act of legislative legerdemain – when legislation or a law is in trouble, resurrect it but by a different name. Thus, we now also have the PASS ID bill — essentially REAL ID-lite. In the words of one of the new bill’s key sponsors, Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich, the Congress will now “get it right the second time.”
The problem is, when Congress gets it wrong the first time; it rarely gets it right the second time. PASS ID, while smoothing some of the rough edges of its REAL ID cousin, and promising to lower the cost to the states, suffers from the same privacy invasive problems. It is also, in every sense of the word, a national identification card. Both, for example, would require cards for access to federal buildings and to obtain federal services; both systems would be based on a massive database of citizen information; and both would include imbedded biometric information (and possibly a radio-frequency identification chip).
Not content with relying on PASS ID to secure sufficient support where its predecessor failed, some in the Congress — most notably Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) — are using fear of illegal immigration as another vehicle by which to mandate a national, biometric-identification card that would be required before any person could secure employment.
Clearly, those relishing the creation of some form of national identification card and the national database on which it would rest, will themselves not rest until they have realized their dream. Those of us opposed to such a travesty, likewise must not let up.