By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized the Department of Homeland Security yesterday for pressuring reluctant states to adopt new federally approved driver's licenses, with one accusing Secretary Michael Chertoff of "bullying" the states into compliance under a threat of blocking citizens' travel.
"We ought to engage in a fairer, more productive negotiated rule-making with the states," the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), told Chertoff. "Maybe people want to have a national ID card in their state. In my state, they don't."
Leahy spoke at a hearing that touched on a range of homeland security issues, from the border fence to the backlog in the naturalization process. But, several times, the conversation between the secretary and the senators circled back to the initiative for a uniform driver's license, known as the Real ID program.
Conceived as a security measure after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it is meant to strengthen the authenticity of driver's licenses and make it tougher to use them as fraudulent proof of identity. Many states have bristled, saying it poses privacy concerns and creates a financial burden. DHS has estimated the cost at $3.9 billion.
"Bullying the states is not the answer, nor is threatening their citizens' rights to travel," Leahy told Chertoff. "From Maine to Montana, states have said no."
Seventeen states passed legislation rejecting Real ID, and DHS has given them until May to comply with the law or find that their driver's licenses would no longer be accepted as federal identification, meaning their residents would have to show passports as proof of identity before boarding planes. Any state not ready by May could get an extension if it filed a request by March 31.
Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) has told federal officials that his state opposes Real ID but said he was filing legislation to improve the integrity of Maine licenses. With Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) acting as mediator, DHS yesterday granted Maine an extension for complying with Real ID.
Chertoff told the committee that some federal grants may be available to offset costs and that DHS is trying to be flexible, granting extensions until June 2009. He also listened as several senators complained about a waiting list for naturalizations that stretches beyond a year and will probably mean hundreds of thousands of citizens-to-be will not be able to vote in the November elections.
"When you have this enormous number of individuals who want to be able to be a part of the American dream, who have paid their taxes, have done the various requirements to meet it, and we're going to have that number that are going to be outside of the system, what answer can we possibly tell them for the reasons?" asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who said an estimated 580,000 applicants are waiting for citizenship approvals. "And what, if anything, can you do about it?"
Chertoff said his agency is processing a record number of naturalization applications and hiring hundreds of adjudicators to handle the workload, but the effort takes time. "So we are making more people citizens more rapidly than ever before, but, I have to say, are mindful not to sacrifice quality assurance," he said.