Commentary

Collins and Chertoff Fight to Save the National ID

Bush administration officials and some Republican senators remain undeterred by the mounting opposition among state governments to a national ID measure and are looking to companies and organizations that will benefit from the ID scheme to persuade opponents beyond the Beltway to back down.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, is the author of the latest effort to sell reluctant states on the REAL ID Act, the 2005 measure which would coerce states into issuing nationally standardized driver’s licenses and require them to enter information about their drivers in nationally accessible databases.

Despite Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s public insistence that the Act needs to be implemented rapidly, the administration, and Mr. Chertoff himself, appear happy to avoid an immediate confrontation with the states and to go along with Ms. Collins’ sales tactic. The Maine Senator introduced a bill, and pressed it as an amendment on the Senate floor, to extend the deadline for state compliance with the REAL ID Act, allowing companies in favor of the measure time to work in state capitols to calm the burgeoning rebellion.

Sen. Collins’ counter-rebellion role is laden with irony. The revolt, after all, started in her own New England state. In late January, George Smith, executive director of the Maine Sportsmen’s Alliance, stood to denounce the REAL ID Act at a community forum in Augusta. A Norman Rockwell painting come to life with the directness and accent of a lifelong Mainer, he said: “They had their Boston Tea Party. Let’s have a REAL ID Party!”

The next day, the Maine House and Senate passed a resolution to reject REAL ID by overwhelming margins.

Working with Sen. Collins, DHS has now moved the deadline for complying with REAL ID back more than a year and a half, from May 2008 to December 2009. DHS says it will start allocating Homeland Security Grant Program funds for REAL ID while implementation is delayed. That gives incentive to the ultimate recipients of the funds to start lobbying rebellious state lawmakers.

Whether the Collins tactic will work remains in doubt. The original objections to the REAL ID Act are still potent. A cost estimate of $11 billion dollars from the National Conference of State Legislatures has now been replaced by a $17 billion dollar estimate out of the Department of Homeland Security itself. Implementing REAL ID will force drivers to spend more time to secure or renew licenses as they will have to document more carefully to DMV bureaucrats exactly who they are. It will force law-abiding, Americans to prove that they are lawfully in the United States. People who have been driving for decades will be turned away without drivers’ licenses routinely because they will not have their papers in order.

The REAL ID Act also requires states to enter information about their drivers into databases to which all other states will have access. Identity thieves will have much greater opportunities to get their hands on driver information nationwide. And a uniform “machine-readable technology” on the licenses themselves will make it easier for governments and businesses to scan licenses and compile storehouses of data about our whereabouts and activities.

American Civil Liberties Union affiliates across the country have worked with state legislators to expose the flaws in REAL ID. Its RealNightmare.org Web site lists 24 states where bills and resolutions opposing and refusing REAL ID are moving. Eight have passed at least one chamber of the legislature.

But opposition to the REAL ID is not restricted to the left. In Utah’s Republican-dominated legislature, the leading opponent of REAL ID is Glenn Donnelson, a Republican of North Ogden and chairman of the House Government Operations Committee. His bill to reject the REAL ID Act was passed unanimously by the Utah House of Representatives.

Idaho Representative Phil Hart, a Republican of Athol, has been leading the charge in his state. In mid-February, he convened a panel discussion in the Boise statehouse. One of the panelists was Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. You might think that a state homeland security official would support REAL ID. Bishop does not.

Bishop pointed out its weaknesses as a security tool. Even if it was possible to accurately nail down the identity of everyone in the country, we would be no better off in terms of preventing a terrorist attack. The 9/11 attackers, just like Timothy McVeigh before them, would have been able to get drivers’ licenses had REAL ID been the law when they struck.

“I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, and I don’t believe in the Lone Ranger,” said Bishop, “which means I don’t believe in silver bullets.” Representative Hart’s resolution passed both chambers of the Idaho legislature.

Extraordinary cost and inconvenience is not a measure of effectiveness. Implementing REAL ID would burden the country with wasteful spending and needlessly undermine Americans’ freedom and privacy without adding to our protections.

Jim Harper is director of information policy studies for the Cato Institute.