Commentary

Rejecting National ID

Last year, seventeen states passed legislation objecting to the REAL ID Act, a massive national identification program the federal government is trying to foist on the American people through their states’ driver licensing systems. Virginia may soon join those states in the REAL ID rebellion. Today, the Virginia Senate’s Transportation Committee will consider a bill to reject the unfunded mandates in the REAL ID Act.

Under the bill, the Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records and the Department of Motor Vehicles would develop and implement a plan to provide Virginia residents with appropriate identity verification. This would let Virginians avoid the national ID system, a network of government databases containing basic identity information, including scanned copies of Social Security cards and birth certificates.

With so many states on record opposing REAL ID, the feds have been shifting through numerous stories trying to justify their national ID. First, they said it was a national security tool. But by now everyone realizes how easy it would be for criminal organizations and terrorists to avoid or defeat a national ID system.

REAL ID isn’t about national security… It’s about Washington politics.”

Then REAL ID became a way to control illegal immigration. But it has the same defects here too. Illegal immigrants will use a mix of forgery, fraud, and corruption at any motor vehicles bureau in the country to get around REAL ID. Driving illegal immigrants further into criminality deepens the problem rather than fixing it. And should law-abiding American citizens really have to carry a national ID to get at illegal immigrants? Just who is the criminal here?

Next, we were told that having a national ID was about identity fraud. But putting our personal information, Social Security Numbers, and basic identity documents like birth certificates into a nationwide string of government databases is a recipe for more identity theft, not less.

Wen the Department of Homeland Security came out with the final REAL ID regulations last month, a top official threw the department’s final Hail Mary, suggesting that REAL ID could be used to control access to cold medicine. That’s right: cold medicine. The lesson? Once a national ID system is in place, the federal government will use it for tighter and tighter control of every American.

The DHS has admitted that not a single state will comply with the REAL ID law by the May 11, 2008 deadline. Even today, nobody knows how to build a massive database system that protects Americans’ privacy and data security. So the department is giving states extensions until the end of 2009, just for the asking. It is also threatening to send air travelers to secondary search at airports if their states haven’t applied for those extensions and kissed the DHS ring.

Why the brinksmanship? Here’s one reason: The top DHS officials involved in REAL ID will be leaving their jobs by the end of the year. A new administration takes over in January 2009, and they intend to be ensconced all around Washington, D.C. in lobbying and consulting jobs by then. Their prospects rise if they have a program to lobby for, and they want to score a victory.

REAL ID isn’t about national security. It isn’t about illegal immigration. It isn’t about identity fraud, or even cold medicine. It’s about Washington politics. Federal bureaucrats want to coerce states like Virginia into building a multi-billion dollar system for identifying, tracking, and controlling law-abiding citizens.

Knowing how the Washington bureaucracy works against our nation’s founding principles of limited government and individual liberty, conservative leaders across the country have joined with others to call the Department of Homeland Security’s bluff. With enough states saying “Hell No” to the REAL ID mandate, the feds will back down from their threat to make air travel inconvenient. The airline industry will be up on Capitol Hill faster than you can say “You are now free to move about the country.” Congress will back the DHS off.

The country will be the better for it if the revolutionary spirit revives in the Old Dominion. The state should reject the privacy and security nightmare known as the REAL ID Act.

Jim Harper is director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.