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Senator, Governor Say REAL ID Will Not Work

By Jim Byrne  5/20/2008
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A federal law requiring states implement federal standards for driver’s licenses and identity credentials will not work, say a U.S. senator and a state governor.

REAL ID, a key ingredient of the Bush administration’s efforts to ensure that individuals employed by American firms are in the United States legally, is a threat to civil liberties, levies a multi-billion dollar unfunded liability on the states and increases opportunities for identity theft, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, at a May 7, 2008, forum held by the Washington, D.C., think tank the Cato Institute. REAL ID will not work, the lawmakers added.

In addition, Tester, a former president of the Montana Senate, said both houses of Montana’s legislature voted unanimously to oppose REAL ID, joining about 20 other states that took similar action.

REAL ID, which Congress approved in 2005 as an amendment to the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Defense, the Global War on Terror and Tsunami Relief Act, requires states to upgrade the security of driver’s licenses and identity cards to meet federal standards. States are to do that by incorporating information and security features into the licenses and identity cards, obtaining proof of the citizenship and legal status of applicants, verifying source documents supplied by the applicants and establishing security standards for the offices that issue licenses and identity cards.

REAL ID compliant cards are essential for the successful operation of E-Verify, Jim Harper, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, told SHRM Online. Operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration, E-Verify is a voluntary, Internet-based system designed to enable companies to electronically verify the employment eligibility of job applicants. About 65,000 out of about 7.5 million U.S. employers are participating in E-Verify.

On Jan. 11, 2008, DHS issued the REAL ID standards for driver’s licenses and identification cards, but on April 2, 2008, DHS extended the deadline for state compliance with REAL ID through 2009. However, full implementation would not occur until Dec. 1, 2017, when federal agencies will not accept any state driver’s licenses or identity credentials that have not been certified by DHS to be in compliance with REAL ID.

Funding Issues

Congress has appropriated $90 million to help states implement REAL ID, but critics say the program will cost as much as $19 billion to implement. “This is the mother of all unfunded mandates,” said Sanford, who served in the House of Representatives from 1995-2001.

Because there is no guarantee of federal compensation for adopting REAL ID standards, some states are delaying implementation of those costly standards, Tester said.

There are bills in Congress—S. 717 and H.R. 1117—to repeal REAL ID and return to the system described in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which directs DHS to work with the states to develop minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and identity cards and which approves grants to help the states implement the upgrades. Although the Senate Homeland Security oversight subcommittee held hearings on S. 717 on April 29, 2008, no vote has been scheduled. In addition, no hearings have been scheduled on H.R. 1117.

Opponents of REAL ID—including Tester and Sanford—say the program will create a national identity card and would give the federal government too much control over citizens. Supporters, including DHS, say compliance with REAL ID requirements will not result in a national identity card.

“Tragically, 9/11 led to a lot of well-intentioned actions that sent federal policy out of control,” Sanford said. “I’d love to be optimistic, but I’m not,” he added.

Jim Byrne is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area who has extensive experience writing about federal tax, civil rights, small-business and health care policies.

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