Opinion

The passport logjam

Let's say you had planned a vacation to the Bahamas for months, bought tickets and arranged for hotel rooms, and were prevented from going because the U.S. government had not pro- cessed your application for a passport. Would you be praising the Department of Homeland Security for its efforts in the war on terror?

We doubt it. And that is more than an idle hypothetical question.

Congress enacted a rule shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that required U.S. citizens to show their passports when traveling by air to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. The law took effect this year.

But even with more than six years to prepare, the flood of passport requests apparently caught the State Department and the Homeland Security Department by surprise. Delays in issuing passports have interfered with thousands of planned vacation trips, and Americans are angry.

Responding to the protests, the government has decided to temporarily relax the new rule. From now until the end of September, travelers will be allowed to fly to the listed destinations if they present government-issued ID, such as a driver's license, and a receipt from a State Department Web site showing they had applied for a passport.

The reprieve applies only to those with applications pending. Those who have yet to apply may be out of luck this summer.

State Department and Homeland Security officials have decided to reinstate the passport rule in January. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the State Department will have enough personnel or be any better prepared to handle the sea of passport requests by January than it is now.

This ineptitude is more than simply an inconvenience for travelers. It undermines the nation's confidence that those in charge of making the nation secure and preventing terrorist attacks actually know what they're doing.

Passports aren't the only problem. Last week, Gov. Mark Sanford, with much fanfare, signed a bill into law that formally codifies South Carolina's refusal to go along with the requirements of the federal REAL ID law. The REAL ID Act would establish a nationalized system for an identification card that would serve both as a driver's license and a universal ID card.

But the measure forces states to pay for the program while requiring residents to prove who they are and where they live when they renew their driver's licenses. State officials estimated the program would cost South Carolina $25 million to implement, then $11 million a year thereafter. All 3.1 million licensed drivers in the state would have to spend several hours waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for the new card.

South Carolina is one of several states that have balked at this requirement. We suspect that, if enough states revolt, Congress will revoke the law. But this fiasco will be remembered as another poorly planned, unfunded mandate in the name of national security.

Stricter passport requirements and a national ID of some kind may be good ideas and might even enhance security. But government officials need to find a way to make these programs work -- and to provide the money to pay for them -- before requiring them to be implemented.

By now, those in the federal government should have learned that it's a mistake to try to dump their problems onto the states. As South Carolina demonstrated, the states are likely to just say no.

IN SUMMARY

Do the federal officials in charge of homeland security really know what they are doing?

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