WASHINGTON — Under siege from states and angry lawmakers, the White House on Thursday moved back a deadline to implement national driver's license standards that critics say would seriously undermine personal privacy and burden states with a hefty bill.
The announcement that states could have an extra 20 months, until the end of 2009, to meet the requirements of the Real ID Act did little to ease criticism of the law from conservative activists, privacy advocates, motor vehicle departments and lawmakers.
The widespread resistance to a policy the administration considers an essential weapon in the war on terrorism reflects a shift from the almost total support the administration initially enjoyed for its national security agenda after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Almost two dozen states are now weighing legislation to oppose Real ID, with some governors dismissing it as a "nightmare." Lawmakers also disagree on such domestic security priorities as how widely to screen cargo entering the country's sea and land ports.
"In the months after Sept. 11, we adopted a 'do anything, do everything' mode," said Jim Harper, a public policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute who advises the Department of Homeland Security and opposes the Real ID Act. "Here with five-plus years behind us, now it's time to look at what does work and what doesn't, and lift the veil of secrecy."
Delayed implementation would not resolve the serious privacy and security concerns that Real ID raises, said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Essentially, we've just kicked the can down the road another two years," he said.
The 2005 law requires new tamper-proof security features on licenses issued only to people who can prove citizenship or legal status. Their personal information would be kept in a database network that would be accessible by motor vehicle departments nationwide. All Americans would be required to renew their licenses by 2013. Those without one would be barred from federal buildings or airplanes unless they could show a passport or some other form of federally approved photo identification.
The decision to postpone the Real ID deadline came as the Senate appeared poised to pass an amendment to do just that and to require input from technology experts and privacy advocates.
In announcing the delayed deadline and new regulations to guide states in carrying out the law, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described Real ID as "a critical new tool to prevent terrorism and to protect our homeland."
He noted that 18 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers obtained fraudulent identification, including driver's licenses, from California and other states. "Two ... obtained the paperwork for their Virginia driver's licenses by handing $100 to an illegal alien in a convenience store parking lot," Chertoff said.
The bipartisan 9/11 commission urged Congress to set national standards for identification. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), then chairman of the judiciary committee, wrote the Real ID Act, which quickly passed the Republican-controlled House.
He then tied the bill to a Senate-bound emergency spending measure for Hurricane Katrina and troops in Iraq. The move meant Real ID did not undergo Senate debate or hearings and was politically risky to oppose: Doing so would deny funds to Gulf Coast victims and American soldiers.
On Thursday, Sensenbrenner decried the law's delayed implementation, saying it could jeopardize public safety. He blamed the Department of Homeland Security: "This was avoidable. It's their own fault because they've had almost two years to issue the regulations," he said.
The cost for states
The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Assn. were equally unhappy, noting that the federal government has not moved to offset the cost to states. They have estimated the cost at $11 billion; the Homeland Security Department puts it at $14.6 billion.
"It's going to cost money because security does cost money," Chertoff said. He announced that states could use up to 20% of their Homeland Security grants to pay for Real ID compliance, for a total of $100 million.
Congress has appropriated $40 million to help states implement Real ID, but only $6 million has been set aside, and President Bush's budget proposal for 2008 did not include any funds to help states.
It could cost California up to $700 million to implement Real ID. George Valverde, director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said Chertoff's decision to allow states to tap domestic security grants wouldn't help, as this year's money has been allocated. "If Homeland Security chooses to increase funding, that's another matter," he said.