What Massachusetts Needs Is a Legislature More Like the U.S. Congress, Said No One Ever

The Massachusetts legislature is currently debating the state government’s budget for the new fiscal year which begins July 1st. This phenomenon—finalizing a spending plan before the beginning of the fiscal year—is something rarely seen in the U.S. Congress any more. Kudos, Bay State, for surpassing the low bar set in Washington, D.C.

But the General Court of Massachusetts is taking one page from the U.S. Congress’s tattered playbook. According to WRAL news, it may attach national ID compliance legislation to the budget bill.

That’s how Congress passed the ill-conceived REAL ID Act back in 2005. There were no hearings on the national ID issue or the bill that gave us one. Instead, the Republican House leadership attached the national ID law to a must-pass spending bill and rammed it past the Senate to President Bush, leaving states to grapple with implementation challenges and Department of Homeland Security belligerence ever since.

As in many states, the U.S. DHS has been telling Massachusetts legislators that they have to get on board with the national ID law, issuing licenses and ID cards according to federal standards, or see their residents refused at TSA’s airport checkpoints.

The threat of federal enforcement in 2016 was broadcast loud and clear last fall. Then in January DHS kicked the deadline a few more years down the road. It’s hard to keep track of the number of times DHS has set a REAL ID deadline, then let it slide when elected state officials have declined to obey the instructions of unelected DHS bureaucrats.

Minnesota has had a similar experience. Last winter, its legislature was spooked into creating a special “Legislative Working Group on REAL ID Compliance.” But Minnesota just ended its legislative season without passing REAL ID compliance legislation. There are a few people there who recognize the demerits of joining the national ID system, and Minnesota elected officials may have figured out that when DHS bureaucrats say “Jump!” they do not have to ask “How high?”

The General Court has done better than the U.S. Congress on REAL ID by holding hearings before acting. In 2007, then-Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley testified before the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

“The Real ID Act was pushed through Congress in 2005 without meaningful debate or hearing on its implications for the states,” she said. “Not only does the Real ID Act call for sweeping changes in how states issue driver’s licenses with limited time to implement the changes, but it does not consider the financial burden placed on the states.”

REAL ID still threatens state budgets. If Massachusetts passes REAL ID compliance language in a budget bill, that will be somewhat ironic, because a pledge to REAL ID compliance would give DHS bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. the power to dictate the Bay State’s driver licensing policies and practices forevermore. The DHS will tell Massachusetts legislators how to spend Massachusetts taxpayer dollars at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Like most states, Massachusetts has yet to grapple with the fact that REAL ID law requires the RMV to share driver data with every other motor vehicle bureau nationwide through a system of databases. The DHS has downplayed that statutory requirement, effectively writing it out of the law until enough states have committed to compliance. But when enough states have signed on, DHS will tell Massachusetts to open up its databases of personal information. Giving nationwide exposure to driver data creates privacy concerns and identity fraud risks greater than the paltry and arguable security benefits of having a national ID.

Will the Massachusetts legislature join the Bush-era Republican Congress in ramming national ID legislation through attached to a spending bill? That’s exactly what it should do, said no one ever.