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Extra $60 for Faster Passport Service Doesn't Cut Wait by Much

By Stephen Barr
Friday, August 17, 2007

Overwhelmed by the public's demand for passports, the State Department yesterday announced that travelers paying an extra $60 for speedy processing of their passport applications should check the Internet to see how long they will have to wait.

The department, in a Federal Register notice, said it had changed the definition of "expedited passport processing" from three business days to a more accordion-like standard of "a number of business days."

Rather than process a passport within three days of receipt of an application, the State Department's Web site ( http://travel.state.gov) said it would take 10 days for internal processing.

That would put door-to-door expedited service at about three weeks, not much different than the two to three weeks applicants have been forced to wait for much of the summer after paying the expedited fee.

In past years, the department has been able to issue a routine passport in four to six weeks. With passports still in high demand, the wait for routine processing is 10 to 12 weeks, according to yesterday's Web notice.

While department officials said the Federal Register notice was intended to allow them to better advise applicants on what to expect and to reflect the realities of their workload, members of Congress took it as another sign that the State Department continues to struggle with how to speed up passport processing.

"This is a clear admission of failure and a decision not to solve the problem, leaving thousands of travelers in the lurch," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"What color is the sky in their world?" Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said to the Associated Press. "I can't believe they're proposing a rule where they want to charge you the same amount, and in return, you're virtually guaranteed to get worse service."

Demand for passports soared at the beginning of the year as travelers sought to comply with a new border security law requiring passports for all U.S. citizens flying within the Western Hemisphere.

By June, nearly 3 million Americans were waiting for passports and many were calling members of Congress to complain that they were fearful of missing overseas trips. Officials plan to have the backlog whittled down by year's end and to get back to processing passports within six weeks.

The surge has disrupted some State Department offices, with employees being pulled off normal duties to process passports. Even U.S. Embassy staff members in London, Mexico City and New Delhi have been called on to help, the Financial Times reported.

To meet the cost of the extra demand, the department published a notice Wednesday saying that it would retain $20, instead of $6, from each passport fee collected. The change would not affect what citizens pay for passports ($97 for routine processing for applicants 16 and older, and $82 for those younger than 16). But the change reduces the flow of cash to the Treasury Department's general fund.

The demand has driven up processing costs to nearly $1 billion, the State Department said in the notice. The most recent estimate shows that the department's cost for the new law would be $944 million from fiscal 2008 to 2010.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the extra $14 per passport that the State Department would hold back from the Treasury would be used to hire 400 passport processors, managers and support personnel this year and an additional 400 in fiscal 2008.

The department also plans to open passport offices "to enhance customer service around the country," he said.

A Postal Push, Ahead of the Deadline

Here's a regulator running ahead of schedule -- the Postal Regulatory Commission.

The commission this week released a 160-page proposed framework for setting mail rates, beating the deadline set by Congress by 10 months.

The proposed rule represents a major step toward the first overhaul of U.S. Postal Service operations since 1971 and grows out of a law signed by President Bush last year. Congress approved the overhaul partly in response to the explosive growth of the Internet and e-mail, which are eroding the volume of first-class mail.

Under the proposed law, the Postal Service would be able to adjust mail rates and stamp prices annually. For some types of mail, such as first-class letters, magazines and advertising, rate increases cannot exceed the consumer-price index for the previous 12 months.

The commission's proposed rule also reflects a push by Dan G. Blair, the panel's chairman, to discourage the Postal Service from filing for a stamp increase in December under the old rules, as permitted by the new law.

If the old rules are used, the process for increasing mail rates would probably take 10 months and require retailers, advertisers, banks and others who use the mail to spend thousands of dollars challenging a rate increase.

"It would be unfortunate if, in this reformed environment, rate changes had to be litigated under the old cost of service system," the proposed rule said.

The Postal Service said no decision has been made on whether to stick with the old rules or jump into a new rate-making system. Dave Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, said the agency will file a reply to the proposed rule next month.

Talk Show

Steven L. Katz, who has worked on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch, on "FedTalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Anthony J. Vegliante, chief human resources officer and executive vice president at the U.S. Postal Service, is to be the guest on the IBM "Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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