Napolitano's Lack of Leadership on Secure Driver's License Legislation Leaves States Worse Off than Before

By Janice Kephart on December 22, 2009

A key secure driver's license deadline of December 31, 2009, has now been pushed back to May 11, 2011, due to the Secretary of Homeland Security's failure to push through Congress her top priority for this Congress: repeal of a law known as REAL ID that encapsulated the intent of the 9/11 Commission recommendation pertaining to state-issued ID security. For the past year, even before former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano's confirmation as DHS Secretary, she vowed to work closely with the National Governors Association to repeal the REAL ID law. Key issues the secretary had with the law, including the imposed deadlines she is now pushing back, she spent the year claiming she did not have the authority to do without congressional approval. We now find out she had the authority all along.

And while DHS continues a propaganda campaign of stating that PASS ID would be a huge improvement for states and national security, the fact remains that the PASS ID bill that was approved out of the Senate Homeland Security Committee (she was unable to get a companion bill in the House of Representatives) – the only bill the public ever saw – had loophole after loophole in it that took the nation back in many instances to a pre-9/11 status. The bill required most states to do nothing to improve their secure issuance procedures, yet provided federal funding with little assurance that states would need to meet the bill's measly standards at all.

The final irony is that the secretary did not acknowledge in her statement that all but three states have asked for a 17-month extension in letters to the secretary that had to be in to her by December 1, 2009. Moreover, ten states are in compliance with the first 18 REAL ID benchmarks now, despite a year of Secretary Napolitano assuring states that REAL ID would not exist by the end of 2009. Another 19 will be ready next year, bringing the score of full compliance to over half the states. States' progress continues despite political promises of the secretary to pass PASS ID this year, which basically confused states and caused most of them to stop or slow down their REAL ID implementation. Even 10 of the 13 states that have laws refusing implementation of REAL ID asked for the 17-month extension.

So now it seems that Secretary Napolitano, who basically spent the past year promising states more money and less compliance with a repeal of REAL ID, has not only failed to persuade Congress to get this done (which should have happened long before the health care issue arose) but also has put all the states in a worse quandary than they were before she became secretary: states now need to get up to speed with REAL ID, and they are way behind in getting there. Moreover, the states' biggest sticking point with REAL ID has always been money, not the regulations she claimed needed an overhaul. Thanks to Secretary Napolitano, the states do not have more money to implement REAL ID, either. Perhaps it would have helped if a contingency plan had been put in place, but it seems Secretary Napolitano never considered continuation of REAL ID as a viable outcome, and did not do PASS ID "disaster" planning. (It makes one wonder what would happen if we really hit a disaster on our homeland.)

Perhaps states will reassess the confidence they put in the federal government on this issue, realizing that this administration is ineffectual in achieving much of anything at all. Perhaps too, states will now continue to look at examples like Indiana, Alabama, New York, and Florida, which have all seen large reductions in driver's license fraud and more streamlined, efficient, and effective screening since implementing REAL ID benchmarks.

Whether or not extending this deadline was the right thing to do at this point is arguable, for sure. Denying holiday travelers the right to board a plane is not helpful, even if only three states' citizens would have been affected (because their insecure driver's licenses would not have been accepted). However, that we even got to this point indicates a lack of leadership and foresight that we should consider highly troubling as a nation. Especially so, when we consider this is the same secretary who claims our borders are secure and Congress must now take up illegal immigration amnesty next session. Our borders are not secure. Our bureaucracy can't even root out basic fraud. On a most fundamental ground, is this an administration we could trust with getting the politics right and our bureaucratic house in order?