Passports for Domestic Travel under REAL ID Law

passport-REAL-IDOne of my commenters brought to my attention an issue that’s not receiving much attention:  Residents of several U.S. states could have to show their passports for domestic travel — or to enter a federal government building — starting January 1 because of the REAL ID Act.  Chris Strohm for Congress Daily:

More than half a dozen states will not be in compliance with a federal driver’s license law by the end of the month, meaning lawmakers and the Homeland Security Department will have to find a stopgap solution to help them avoid penalties.

States were required by Tuesday to request a waiver from the Homeland Security Department in order to be considered in compliance with the Real ID law, which set strict standards for driver’s licenses and identification cards.

Many federal and state officials say the law is unworkable and constitutes an unfunded mandate. Some state governments have passed laws prohibiting them from complying with the Bush-era law.

As of late Tuesday, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma and South Carolina, along with three U.S. territories, had not asked for a waiver, according to Homeland Security.  Technically, under the law, residents of states that do not have a waiver by the end of the month will be required to go through secondary screening at airports beginning Jan. 1, which could create confusion and disruptions for tens of thousands of airline passengers.

But no one expects that to happen. Instead, the department is likely to simply extend the deadline for states to come into compliance with Real ID. The federal commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks recommended national standards for driver’s licenses.

Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and the National Governors Association want Congress to pass legislation this month to repeal the Real ID law. The PASS ID Act was approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in July, but Senate Republicans have kept it from advancing. A similar bill awaits committee action in the House.

It looks like DHS will step in to avert this mess if Congress doesn’t.  But they’re playing chicken at the moment because the administration is trying to pass an alternative measure called PASS ID and is trying to force Congress’ hand.

My home state, Virginia, is one of the states that is in rebellion against REAL ID.  In March, now-outgoing Governor Tim Kain signed a bipartisan law prohibiting the Commonwealth from complying with certain provisions.   According to a press release, “The Virginia law is not an outright rejection of Real ID, but it will prohibit any ID, or database linked to the ID, from containing biometric data (e.g., DNA, fingerprints, or retinal scans) or financial information (e.g., tax returns or personal investment information) that compromise “economic privacy.”

My concern isn’t so much with privacy issues but with the absurdity of the unfunded mandate.   If a biometric identification card will really enhance the security of airplane flights and government buildings — and I seriously doubt it will, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the infinitesimal nature of the threat — then it should fund the implementation.  Frankly, having our primary identification card issued by 50 state governments, requiring turning it in and going through the bureaucracy of getting a new one every time we move, is silly anyway.

You would think we’d have learned from the fiasco with the new passports.

Illustration: Consumer Traveler

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Congress, National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    Actually, I’ve read that 30+ states will not be in compliance by year’s end. The Consumer Traveler website ran this article:

    The Real ID squeeze — do we need passports to fly domestically?

    Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asked Secretary Napolitano, at the Senate committee hearings, directly, whether she would assure all Americans that she would extend the current identification laws at the end of the year to allow Americans to continue boarding planes. He suggested that she do it right then in front of the committee. She declined, citing a new law, PASS ID, that may or may not be passed by the Senate.

    “As you know, more than 30 states, including New Mexico, are unlikely to meet the December 31, 2009 deadline,” Udall noted. “While we understand the Administration’s desire to enact the PASS ID Act in lieu of granting an additional extension, the uncertainty surrounding the steps the Department may or may not take if the legislation is not signed into law is creating confusion and raising serious concerns in the many states that are not currently in full compliance with existing law.”

    I’ve not been able to find a comprehensive list of the 30 or more states Sen. Udall mentions. I’d check your state’s position just in case you plan to fly on Jan. 2 — or go into a US courthouse to take the oath of allegiance to become a US citizen
    (Jesus Christ — no US passport, no becoming a US citizen…WTF)– and nothing’s been done.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I do not think the founders intended for this sort of legislation or regulation to ever take place in this nation. Government is to serve the people. That is why it is called public service. I think it is about time to march on Washington. Take tools and on the way, eliminate liberal carbon emitter. Look at the green house prevented.

  3. JKB says:

    Better march before Jan 1 otherwise you’ll be required to show your papers.

    Forget the new passports, look at the problems the government had with the new federal employee IDs. Way over budget and way over schedule.

  4. just me says:

    I don’t think it is a bad idea to have some kind of standardized ID-but I also think the federal government shouldn’t be telling states they have to comply and not provide any funding to help them comply.

    I am also not convinced that having some kind of nationwide standard would prevent terrorist acts or even good counterfeiting. It would probably make it difficult for some underage drinkers to get fake ID’s, but I doubt it would do anything to stop anything major.

  5. Regardless of the merits, or lack thereof, of the law, doesn’t the Virginia law amount to a modern-day version of nullification? And didn’t Andrew Jackson put that to bed in regard to to what South Carolina tried to do?

  6. steve says:

    Is there any real security expert who thinks these will do anything useful? A solution looking for a problem.


  7. I’m just going to go ahead and get the number of the beast tattooed on my forehead. I’m hoping early compliance will count for something when the antichrist comes. In fact I may apply for a job with His administration.