State Dept. Faulted on Hill for Passport Delays

People wait outside the passport office in Washington earlier this month.  A surge in applications since November has overwhelmed passport centers.
People wait outside the passport office in Washington earlier this month. A surge in applications since November has overwhelmed passport centers. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The State Department did not head off a massive backlog of passport applications before this summer's peak travel season, despite warnings as early as November that demand was running far higher than expected, congressional investigators said yesterday.

Department officials knew that requests were exceeding projections by 250,000 last November and by 600,000 in January -- the same month that a controversial travel rule took effect. The rule requires Americans to present passports when returning by air from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, Senate aides said. A Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the matter is set for today.

More than half of the Senate called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday to end the backlog and to ensure that it does not return after a temporary waiver, granted last week, expires on Sept. 30.

"It is unacceptable that American citizens were missing trips because the State Department did not fully anticipate the increase in passport applications and take appropriate action to increase processing resources," said a letter signed by 56 senators, led by Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the State Department should consider refunding a fee to applicants who paid an extra $60, on top of the regular $97 passport fee, for expedited processing.

"How much was collected for services not rendered?" Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin asked. "Who at the State Department is most responsible for inaction, given their own projections they saw at the end of last year? Is it a broader management failing?"

Angry constituents have been contacting lawmakers for weeks with reports of travel plans going awry because passport wait times have increased from as short as three weeks last year to as long as three months now.

State Department officials said that about 500,000 applications have been pending for more than 12 weeks and that they underestimated requests by as many as 1 million. The department is on pace to issue 17 million passports in 2007, compared with 12 million last year.

The breakdown has crystallized opposition in Congress to plans to expand the new homeland security requirements next January to people who enter by land or sea.

On Friday, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation similar to language passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee as part of the Department of Homeland Security's pending $37 billion 2008 budget. The legislation would mandate a 17-month delay, until June 2009, of the land and sea requirement, which is part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

That program was started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to require travelers to present a single, standardized document that can be automatically checked by U.S. border authorities against government databases to screen for security threats. But critics warn that 300 million of 400 million annual U.S. border crossings occur by land or sea.

"Everyone but the Bush administration can plainly see that a train wreck is looming on the horizon," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement.

Senate aides said the State Department is asking to shift $112 million in its consular staffing budget to add 400 workers this summer and another 400 workers in the fiscal year starting in October, in addition to 1,125 employees and contract workers added since 2006.

The department has already invited employees worldwide to help colleagues in exchange for daily expenses while traveling in the United States and has asked retirees to come back as contractors.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Senate criticism came after business hours, said, "A root cause here is that we received a lot of passport applications from a lot of Americans in a short period of time, and we all reacted and responded to that added need."

Senate aides cite delays at the State and Treasury departments and at Citibank, a Treasury contractor. Citibank took over sole operation of "lockbox" offices set up to deposit passport fees and forward applications in November, but apparently fell two to three weeks behind the increase, causing further delays, aides said.

The problem has grown because some companies applied on behalf of their workers in large batches, many Americans who do not need passports are applying for them out of caution, and now more people are filing in anticipation of the long delays. Because passport processing relies on user fees, not money provided by Congress, budgets are based on projections that limit money and flexibility in case of unanticipated surges, aides said.

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