Like it or not — and many in the Obama administration don't — Real ID is coming to a driver's license near you.
Having failed to get Congress to revise the tough new security rules for state-issued licenses in the Real ID Act, the Department of Homeland Security says it is working out how to implement the law.
But critics fear Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to gut the intent of the legislation's authors.
There is broad agreement among those following the issue on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country that Pass ID, the legislative alternative to Real ID that the Obama administration was pushing last year, is dead in the water.
"Pass ID is not moving forward," David Quam, director of federal relations for the National Governors Association, told The Washington Times.
"Although [Homeland Security] is still working with Congress on a comprehensive solution that allows cost savings and flexibility to the states, we are obligated to continue moving ahead with efforts to improve the standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification under the REAL ID framework pending any legislative changes by Congress," Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa told The Times in an e-mail.
The Real ID Act grew out of a recommendation from the Sept. 11 commission that driver's licenses needed to be more secure and harder to obtain for terrorists and other malefactors. Despite being in the country illegally, all but one of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 had driver's licenses or other state-issued ID cards that they used to rent cars and apartments, and ultimately to board the planes they commandeered.
Several terrorist plots foiled in the United States since then have been attempted by people who also had managed to get driver's licenses, despite having overstayed their visas.
"People understand that 99 percent of the security at airports, buildings, stadiums and other events relies on visual verification of driver's licenses," said Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a nonprofit that advocates for fraud-proof licenses. "That's why there has always been broad public support for stronger identity security."
To comply with the Real ID Act, states must check that license applicants are in the country legally, ensure they have valid Social Security numbers and verify the authenticity of documents such as birth certificates, among other requirements. Applicants in the United States on visas can be issued licenses, but those licenses will expire with the visas.
Because driver's licenses are issued by states, federal law cannot mandate standards for them, so the Real ID Act says licenses that do not comply with its standards will not be usable for "federal purposes" — like boarding a plane or entering a federal building.
Compliant licenses are marked with a gold star.
But Real ID has proved controversial, and more than a dozen states have enacted laws opposing or blocking its implementation.
Ten states have certified that they are complying with the law, and another 17 are on target to comply by the end of the year, according to state and federal officials. Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia have not certified their compliance.
The original deadline for compliance was May 2008, but the homeland security secretary was empowered to grant extensions for states, and both Bush administration Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his successor in the Obama administration, Ms. Napolitano, have done so. May 2011 now is the deadline for states to comply.
"It's still the law of the land and we have to deal with that," said Ian Grossman of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which represents state driver's licensing authorities across the country.
The NGA's Mr. Quam said the states have "serious issues" with Real ID.
"We put forward a lot of suggestions to make Real ID more workable," he said of the Pass ID proposal. "The question now is, can states make the deadline or will there have to be changes?"
A big concern is "how this gets paid for. … It's an unfunded mandate," Mr. Quam said, noting that many states are "heading into their worst fiscal year ever." A Homeland Security grant program to help states meet the costs provides "not nearly enough money," he added.
Other concerns revolve around the use of federal databases to check Social Security numbers and a system for electronically verifying birth certificates.
"Every governor supports a more secure system [of driver's licensing]," Mr. Quam said. "The question is, how do you do that in a way that's workable, flexible and affordable?"
Homeland Security officials declined to give any details about how they intended to proceed.
"As we get closer to the deadline, that will come into focus more," Mr. Quam predicted.
One possibility is that Ms. Napolitano could extend the deadline again. Another is that the department could issue a new rule on implementation that addresses state concerns. Both of those possibilities are anathema to the law's backers.
"I am concerned that a new rule-making effort will interrupt progress under way," said Mr. Zimmer, who as a legislative aide to House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, helped write the original legislation.
"There is a considerable risk that the existing rules will be relaxed to make it easier for certain states to be deemed in compliance," he added.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, echoed those concerns.
"I'm pleased that the Obama administration finally may recognize its obligations under the REAL ID Act. But I remain skeptical about any potential changes that the Obama administration will try to push through," he told The Times in an e-mail.
Mr. Zimmer said the risk in extending the deadline "is that states which are currently working hard to meet next year's deadline will be sent the message that they don't need to worry about it."
"At the present pace, more than half of the states will meet the federal requirements by the 2011 deadline, and that would be a very positive outcome," he said.
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