State Dept. Promises Passport Solutions

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Facing an unexpected backlash from angry travelers and lawmakers, the Bush administration said yesterday it would be flexible in enforcing new passport requirements beginning next January for Americans who return by land or sea from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

In signaling a partial retreat from strict implementation of new security rules, State Department officials acknowledged mismanaging an initial phase-in for air travelers that produced crippling passport application backlogs.

"We simply did not anticipate Americans' willingness to comply so quickly with the new law," Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said in a written statement to a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.

In January, the United States began requiring Americans to present passports when returning by air from North American destinations. The new requirement is intended to prevent terrorist suspects from crossing U.S. borders by requiring travelers to present a single, standardized document that can be automatically checked against government databases.

The State and Homeland Security departments last week temporarily waived a requirement for an actual passport until Sept. 30 for travelers who can show proof they applied for a passport. The agencies said the new requirement triggered a backlog of almost 3 million passport applications and quadrupled waiting time from three weeks to three months.

Harty said the department issued 12.1 million passports last year, and it projected receiving 16.2 million applications this year. Instead, it is on track to issue 17.7 million passports this year, with forecasts for 23 million in 2008 and as many as 30 million by 2010.

Americans are increasingly applying for passports to use as identity documents, Harty said, noting that only 20 out of 200 applicants whose files she examined had travel plans.

"In some ways, we drummed up business -- and more business than we anticipated. It was a mistake," Harty added. "No excuse, but it is a new phenomenon."

Lawmakers from both parties cited a deluge of complaints by constituents angry over disrupted trips.

"I'm concerned because it's another story of complete failure in government and ineptness," Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said. "This is just another example of ineptness that absolutely destroys Americans' -- including mine -- confidence in the federal government doing anything right, competently."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said, "You have a mess," adding: "The [Senate] offices are absolutely overwhelmed."

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee and the full House approved legislation that would delay until June 2009 the planned expansion of the program next January to those returning by land or sea.

Yesterday, Harty said that her department and DHS will unveil an expansion plan, within days, "which will demonstrate that we have heard you and have heard your constituents," and that "as a result, that rule as introduced will be very flexible."

Passport processing times will return to eight weeks by the end of September and six weeks by the end of the year, Harty said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company