By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006
CONCORD, N.H. -- Those concerned about a new federal plan to overhaul the issuing of driver's licenses have two fairly distinct ways of showing it. One of them involves task forces, letter-writing and groups such as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The other involves protesters dressed like Nazis and politicians quoting Patrick Henry.
Anyone familiar with the revolution-tinged politics of New Hampshire can guess which one is happening here.
"The war on our civil liberties is actually begun," New Hampshire state Rep. Neal M. Kurk (R) told his colleagues recently, borrowing from Henry's famous "Liberty or Death" speech to condemn the license plan and the U.S. government in place of the British crown. He continued: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?"
Now, this state legislature is poised to formally reject the new license rules, which are aimed at screening out terrorists and illegal immigrants, but have been criticized as a logistical nightmare and the beginning of a national ID card. As a political circus has unfolded here in Concord, everyone, including libertarians, evangelical Christians and state bureaucrats, has been paying attention.
"Everybody's watching," said Jim Harper at the Cato Institute in Washington, who objects to the new rules as a federal intrusion into personal privacy. His hope: "Even one state refusing to participate basically will cause the system to crumble."
The controversy in New Hampshire surrounds a federal law called the Real ID Act, which was approved last year after it was tacked on to a bill funding the war in Iraq and relief for tsunami victims. Its principal backer, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said he wanted to close the kinds of loopholes that allowed some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers to obtain official identification.
The bill requires states to check whether driver's license applicants are in the country legally, and to require documents showing their birth date, Social Security number and home address. The act also requires that states find a way to verify that the documents are valid.
The deadline is May 2008. If states cannot meet the new requirements by then, the bill says, their licenses may not be accepted as identification at airport security screenings, federal buildings and nuclear plants.
Groups of state-level officials have protested that the act requires sophisticated computer networks that don't exist now and that meeting the deadline could be overwhelmingly expensive or simply impossible.
For now, their criticism has been measured while they wait for the Department of Homeland Security to work out key details of the license plan. It's still unclear, for instance, whether drivers who have a license already will have to be rescreened, or whether there will need to be a single federal computer database containing everyone's license information.
New Hampshire, though, is not the waiting kind of state.
In January, several legislators here introduced a bill that called the Real ID measure "contrary and repugnant" to both the U.S. and New Hampshire constitutions, and vowed that "New Hampshire shall not participate in a national identification card system."
At first, the bill seemed destined to fail, voted down in committee. But then, in early March, Kurk stood up to defend it on the House floor, citing the new federal rules as the beginning of creeping federal intrusions.
"We care more for our liberties than to meekly hand over to the federal government the potential to enumerate, track, identify and eventually control," he said, before quoting Henry and his state's defiant motto, "Live Free or Die."
That brought the house down, and the bill up: State representatives voted 217 to 84 in favor.
Emboldened by that success, groups opposed to Real ID staged a rally in late April in front of the statehouse where, according to a report in the Concord Monitor, some wore "666" on their foreheads -- indicating their belief that a national system of rules for driver's licenses is a step toward the "mark of the beast" prophesied in the Book of Revelation.
Lauren Canario dressed up in a Nazi-esque khaki uniform and helped run a fake checkpoint where she demanded people's identification.
Real ID "sounds a lot like the old Nazi movies, and we just wanted to illustrate that," she said in an interview last week.
Someplace else, a movement with this kind of stagecraft might be on the political fringe. Here, it has momentum: A spokeswoman for Gov. John Lynch (D) said this week that he will sign the anti-Real ID bill if it gets to him. And on Wednesday morning, a Senate committee unanimously approved the bill, electrifying its supporters in the audience. "This is a wave of freedom that's going to roll across the country," Joel Winters, a leader in the Real ID opposition movement, said afterward.
First, though, it has to roll across the full New Hampshire Senate. There, Senate President Theodore L. Gatsas (R) said he's worried about what will happen if the rest of the country doesn't follow New Hampshire's lead and his state's residents suddenly need a passport to get on domestic flights.
Arguments against the new federal licensing rules "are great things to say," said Gatsas. "But it's an awful jeopardy to put the state in."