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National IDs for everybody?

CNET's Washington watcher, Declan McCullagh, says politics might be behind Rep. David Dreier's plan to force Americans to carry national ID cards.

Rep. David Dreier wants to force all Americans to carry a national ID card around with them.

The California Republican is not about to describe his new bill in those terms, but that's the reality.

Dreier's legislation would prohibit employers from hiring people unless the job applicants first obtain new federal ID cards with their photograph, Social Security number and an "encrypted electronic strip" with additional information. Any employer who fails to comply faces hefty fines and prison terms of up to five years.

Dreier is smart enough to realize that these federal IDs would be immediately forged, so he takes the next step of linking them to an employment eligibility database that's queried by card readers whenever the ID is swiped. The employment database is required to include "all such data maintained by the Department of Homeland Security," combined with what the Social Security Administration has on file.

Most all bills die without the dignity of a floor vote. But Dreier is a rising star in the Republican Party with the influence to enact legislation quickly.

As a chairman, he's one of the youngest to head the powerful House Rules Committee, not to mention acting as co-chair of Californians for Bush and chairman of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition team. In 1998, his conservative voting record garnered a perfect 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition--and a zero percent rating from the left-leaning Americans for Democratic Action. Last week, Dreier appeared on MSNBC as a Republican spokesman before the presidential debate.

Any employer who fails to comply faces hefty fines and prison terms of up to five years.
The ostensible reason Dreier gives for a federal ID: curbing illegal immigration, the subject of a recent Time magazine cover story. "The explosion in counterfeit identity documents and employers who are unable or unwilling to establish the authenticity of documents presented by job applicants severely undermines our national security," Dreier said when introducing his bill, which he calls the Illegal Immigrant Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act.

The real reasons are slightly more complicated.

Tight re-election campaign
Dreier is used to commanding handsome victories at the polls every two years over his Democratic rivals. But since 1996, Dreier's re-election percentages have dipped below 60 percent a few times, and events in the last month slammed the powerful Republican with a series of embarrassing pre-Election Day setbacks.

First came allegations in the LA Weekly newspaper and the New York Post that Dreier, who has amassed a slew of anti-gay votes, is homosexual. Then two local talk show hosts, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of KFI-AM 640, became fed up with Dreier's stand on immigration.

They organized a "Fire Dreier" rally on Sep. 15 on charges that illegal immigrants from Mexico have wreaked havoc on California's economy. Held outside Dreier's Glendora, Calif., office, it drew hundreds of protesters armed with signs and bullhorns who called for a "political human sacrifice," according to the Pasadena Star-News.

The real problem with Dreier's plan is not that it creates an ID card. Driver's licenses do that today.
Conservative publications continued the attack--a worrisome sign for a Republican who won't deny wanting to be speaker of the House someday. WorldNetDaily columnist Jane Chastain wrote an article on Sept. 16 endorsing the Fire Dreier scheme: "It will leave congressmen, who have done little or nothing to help stem the tide of illegal immigrates, quaking in their boots."

The upshot? Just hours before the Fire Dreier protest, the embattled congressman informed the Claremont Kiwanis Club that he would introduce his national ID bill. Six days later, Dreier did just that.

The real problem with Dreier's plan is not that it creates an ID card. Driver's licenses do that today.

But Dreier would create a back-end database for authentication purposes that could track whenever the ID is swiped. Just as the Social Security Number's uses grew, those readers would appear just about everywhere: banks, office buildings, supermarkets. Such a database would overflow with detailed records of all of our life's activities and create an irresistible temptation for misuse by corrupt officials or electronic intruders.

Dreier isn't alone. A introduced last month in response to the 9/11 Commission's report would give the Department of Homeland Security unfettered power to regulate state drivers' licenses and ID cards. The House version takes a similar approach.

Both measures say federal agencies will only accept licenses and ID cards that comply--a requirement that would affect anyone who wants to get a U.S. passport, obtain Social Security benefits, or even wander into a federal courthouse. States would be strong-armed into complying. Warns Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union: "Congress shouldn't be providing a blank check to the Department of Homeland Security to design a national driver's license."

It's not just a liberal sentiment. Says Stephen Lilienthal, a policy analyst at the conservative Free Congress Foundation: "Many conservatives have expressed concern that proposals such as the Dreier bill are placed on the books with a limited set of objectives but will expand bit by bit to include all sorts of other information and be monitored constantly by the government to keep track of individuals from cradle to grave."

Dreier should take note. Talking loudly about ID cards may boost his re-election bid next month, but voters won't be pleased when they've figured out what it actually means.