COMMENTARY: Despite Regulations, Real ID Still Cause for Concern

By: - March 6, 2007 12:00 am

Do as we say, not as we do. That’s the message from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

When Congress enacted the Real ID Act in 2005 to create national standards for strengthening the security of drivers licenses, it asked Homeland Security to come up with rules to implement the law. For nearly two years, Homeland Security dragged its feet and refused to issue the regulations.

With only 14 months to implement a law that requires the reissuance of more than 245 million drivers licenses, state legislators are only now learning what it is they’ll be implementing. So when states asked for an extra two years to come into compliance with the law’s regulations, what was Homeland Security’s response? They’ll think about it.

Make no mistake, state legislators are committed to strengthening the security of the drivers license issuance process. The problem is the vehicle with which the federal government has chosen to do so.

Shortly after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, state lawmakers went to work strengthening the security of state-issued drivers licenses. But that all came to a screeching halt when Congress enacted and the president signed the Real ID Act. Since then, drivers license security has been in limbo as states have anxiously awaited the release of implementing regulations from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Real ID Act is the federal government’s attempt to create national standards for the issuance of state drivers licenses and identification cards. The law requires consumers to visit their local motor vehicle agency and prove to the state that they are who they say they are. The authenticity of each birth certificate, social security card, marriage certificate or other identifying document must be verified through a national database to ensure the veracity of the applicant’s identity.

Real ID was enacted without so much as a public hearing and without any consideration as to the costs, technology and manpower required to put the law in place. An analysis last year of implementation costs suggested states will be forced to spend at least billion collectively over five years to comply. Now, despite Secretary Chertoff’s assertion last week that the states’ cost estimates were “overstated,” Homeland Security’s own economists estimate the cost to be billion.

The regulations represented an opportunity for Homeland Security to make a well-intentioned but ill-conceived law much stronger. The drivers license policy experts – state officials – couldn’t have made it easier. State officials offered a series of realistic recommendations that would save consumers money while at the same time provide for a secure process for issuing drivers licenses.

Of course, chief among the recommendations was a request to fully fund the law. Apparently the federal government’s plan is for states to pass along the costs of meeting the new national standards to consumers. This means that by several estimates some folks will pay more than to renew their drivers licenses. That coupled with the additional time it will take waiting in line – perhaps 75 percent longer – makes for a big headache.

The department suggested the other option for funding is for states to use precious resources from their federal homeland security grants. Of course the problem with this approach is that if states redirect this money to Real ID implementation then their first responders will wind up losing the little, precious resources they have. And perhaps they were hoping state legislators wouldn’t notice these grants have been reduced from billion to a proposed billion over the past five years.

States also asked for the ability to provide exemptions for those individuals who’ve already been vetted by the federal government. People who have a security clearance, a passport, a military ID or in some other way have had their identity verified by the federal government shouldn’t need to go through the process again. Exempting these 70 million plus individuals would save states a great deal of time and money and would in no way compromise the integrity of the process.

Other recommendations would have eased the impact of the law on state resources. Extending the reenrollment period from five years to 10 provides a more realistic timeframe for the issuance of a quarter-billion drivers licenses. Creating universal terms for individual records would greatly ease the process of allowing data to reconcile from one database to another. And allowing states to employ proven, and often less expensive, security technologies eliminates the risks of using unproven technologies.

But the facts are that the Department of Homeland Security dropped the ball and wasted a golden opportunity to strengthen the security of drivers licenses.

Despite Secretary Chertoff’s claim that he believes the program is “very important,” the department left states with very little time to institute major changes. Most states will be unable to meet the May 2008 deadline and will be required to beg for an extension.

The department chose, in large part, to ignore the recommendations of those who’ve been in the 100-year-old business of issuing drivers licenses. They chose rigid, unrealistic deadlines. They chose duplication. They chose risk. And they chose to balance to new rules on the backs of consumers and our nation’s first responders.

The nation’s state officials can and will make the Real ID Act work. We have many friends in Congress who are willing to listen and are now realizing that perhaps they acted in haste. State legislators look forward to working with their Washington counterparts over the next few months to do just that – strengthen the security of state issued drivers licenses, while not breaking our budgets.

Senator Leticia Van de Putte is a state senator from San Antonio, Texas. She is the president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

NCSL is the bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staff of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.

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