Senators skeptical of Real ID Act rules

Two years after voting for federalized ID cards, some politicians are having second thoughts about the rules.

Not one senator voted against a 2005 emergency spending bill that created federalized ID cards. But two years later, skepticism on Capitol Hill about the wildly controversial Real ID rules is beginning to surface.

Leaders of a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel joined a chorus of outsiders, including many state government officials, who have questioned the costs and privacy implications of the congressionally mandated shift to identification cards that must adhere to a bevy of national standards.

One of the requirements in draft rules for the program issued earlier this month, for example, is that states issue machine-readable licenses whose information could be shared among individual state motor vehicle department databases, which Homeland Security defends as a means of helping to verify that the same driver isn't licensed in more than one state. There is no requirement, however, that the information contained on the cards be encrypted.

Such a standard "could provide one-stop shopping for identity thieves," Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said at a hearing on the topic.

Akaka, who also joined some of his colleagues in criticizing the current Real ID requirements as an "unfunded mandate," is one of four senators backing a bill that would repeal the Real ID Act. The proposal would replace that law with what privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have praised as a more flexible approach with stiffer privacy requirements, including encryption of card data and a ban on third-party use of the data.

The Real ID Act grew out of 9/11 Commission recommendations that states implement driver's licenses that are more difficult to forge, after investigators determined the majority of the hijackers who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks were able to obtain the identification cards using falsified documents.

Some senators on Monday lamented that their colleagues managed to sneak the Real ID language into a crucial spending bill without hearings or debate. They said they would have preferred to implement the changes through a process some had advocated prior to the Real ID Act's passage: convening a group composed of state officials, privacy advocates and technological experts to negotiate standards.

Meanwhile, a number of states have begun rebelling against the requirements, citing cost and privacy concerns. State legislators in Maine and Idaho recently rejected participation, and some 28 states have seen introduction of or support for measures voicing disapproval with the Real ID requirements.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has introduced a bill that would give states more time to get their systems in line with the requirements, questioned whether such a route is actually practical.

"If they don't participate, then their citizens cannot board airplanes, they cannot gain access to certain federal do you really think there is an alternative for any state but to opt in?" she asked Richard Barth, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary who shares responsibility for the program.

Barth, who spoke under oath before the committee, said he believes there are "strong incentives" for states to participate and defended the program as vital for fighting terrorism. He added that citizens will be able to use alternative forms of identification, such as State Department-issued passports or military-issued identification cards, as stand-ins for the Real ID-mandated cards.

Senators also continued to voice concern about how states would pay for the program, which Homeland Security estimates will cost $23.1 billion over a 10-year period. States are allowed, for instance, to spend 20 percent of the federal homeland security grants they receive on meeting Real ID requirements, but committee members, including Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), said they found that prospect "ridiculous."

"I wonder if Congress realizes the huge cost burden we're placing on states," he said.

Barth said Homeland Security would not "in any way, shape or form" object to Congress setting aside more than the $40 million it has currently appropriated for federal Real ID implementation. But he said the department is also looking at ways to help states to cut costs, such as procuring all of the cardstock and physical equipment needed to print the cards through a national contract and reselling them to states at "the lowest possible cost."

Not all senators present on Monday were so critical of the existing plan. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said going forward with the standardized IDs was critical for national security. He also suggested Congress should hold off on changing the law until at least after Homeland Security issues its final Real ID rules, which Barth said are expected in August or September.

"We've got to be a working partner and not get into an adversarial process," Warner said.

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