Congress Close to Establishing Rules for Driver’s Licenses

Congress Close to Establishing Rules for Driver’s Licenses [RSS] (NYT)

Following a recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission, the House and Senate are moving toward setting rules for the states that would standardize the documentation required to obtain a driver’s license, and the data the license would have to contain. Critics say the plan would create a national identification card. But advocates say it would make it harder for terrorists to operate, as well as reduce the highway death toll by helping states identify applicants whose licenses had been revoked in other states.

The Senate version of the intelligence bill includes an amendment, passed by unanimous consent on Oct. 1, that would let the secretary of homeland security decide what documents a state would have to require before issuing a driver’s license, and would also specify the data that the license would have to include for it to meet federal standards. The secretary could require the license to include fingerprints or eye prints. The provision would allow the Homeland Security Department to require use of the license, or an equivalent card issued by motor vehicle bureaus to nondrivers for identification purposes, for access to planes, trains and other modes of transportation. The bill does not give the department the authority to force the states to meet the federal standards, but it would create enormous pressure on them to do so. After a transition period, the department could decide to accept only licenses issued under the rules as identification at airports. The House’s version of the intelligence bill, passed Friday, would require the states to keep all driver’s license information in a linked database, for quick access. It also calls for “an integrated network of screening points that includes the nation’s border security system, transportation system and critical infrastructure facilities that the secretary determines need to be protected against terrorist attack.” The two versions will go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Some civil liberties advocates say they are horrified by the proposal. “I think it means we’re going to end up with a police state, essentially, by allowing the secretary of homeland security to designate the sensitive areas and allowing this integrating screening system,” said Marv Johnson, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. If the requirement to show the identification card can be applied to any mode of transportation, he said, that could eventually include subways or highways, and the result would be “to require you to have some national ID card, essentially, in order to go from point A to point B.” James C. Plummer Jr., a policy analyst at Consumer Alert, a nonprofit organization based here, said, “You’re looking at a system of internal passports, basically.”

But a Senate aide who was involved in drafting the bipartisan language of the amendment said that in choosing where to establish a checkpoint, the provision “does not give the secretary of homeland security any new authority.” The aide, who asked not to be identified because of his involvement in drafting the measure, said it would not create a national identification card but would standardize a form of identification routinely issued by states. Representative Candice S. Miller, the Michigan Republican who drafted the license section of the House measure, said, “I don’t think this is anything that should cause anyone concern.”

Of the 50 states, 48 are members of interstate compacts that exchange information on moving violations, so that a driver from, say, Maryland, who picks up a speeding ticket in Florida will accumulate points in his home state. But Michigan and Wisconsin are not members of a compact. Ms. Miller said one purpose of the provision she wrote was to fix that problem.

While I’m both libertarian and federalist in my leanings, the alarmist reaction to the words “national ID card” baffles me. We already have to show identification to board public transportation or to operate a motor vehicle. It’s unclear why standardizing the system to make it actually worth doing would impinge on our liberty. As it is, with 50 state licenses plus the ones from DC and the territories, it would be unlikely that even a reasonably well trained TSA agent would be able to spot any but the most obvious forgery.

Even aside from national security concerns, I’d prefer that we take this a step further and simply have a federalized drivers’ license so that there would be no need to surrender a perfectly good license and pay for a new one every time one moves across state lines, which is a rather frequent occurence in today’s society.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Aha! But then you could have teenagers moving to Alabama just to take their driver’s test without having to parallel park. Compared to other states where you have to demonstrate that ability!

    On a side note – I wish I had to learn to parallel park earlier. Moving to Alexandria where one has to parallel part in Old Town was quite an adjustment. 🙂

  2. carpeicthus says:

    Wow. Exhibit A in the fallaciousness of the Slippery Slope argument. “If you standarzide paperwork, the government might come at you with CHAINSAW-WIELDING NINJAS!”

  3. OTTami says:

    *sigh* It’s never about the initial idea, it’s always about all the stuff that gets tacked to the original idea. One driver’s license for the whole country would indeed be efficient. Having to include all sorts of non-driver related information in the driver’s license database is the slippery slope. You know, the one that brings on the ninjas.

  4. bryan says:

    So we want MORE federal government bureaucracy? Oh, joy. The Feds can’t even keep INS right, and you want them to keep track of everyone’s drivers license?