Pennsylvania's Decision to Play Chicken with the Feds over Driver's Licenses Is a Bad Idea

By Janice Kephart on June 18, 2012

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's decision last month to sign a law rejecting compliance with REAL ID, the federal secure driver's license statute, is putting the state's residents at risk of unknowingly playing the lead role in a game of "chicken" with the feds on airport security ID requirements. Gov. Corbett is claiming an inability to comply with REAL ID standards and exaggerating the costs, both of which are highly inaccurate based on documentation obtained under Pennsylvania's "Right to Know Law". Corbett's irresponsible decisions will not only cost residents more hassle and money, but make a mockery out of 9/11 Commission recommendations on why we need secure IDs. These include facts pertaining to Ziad Jarrah, who crashed United Airlines Flight 93 into a Shanksville, Pa., field on September 11, 2001.

States must be compliant with the federal REAL ID Act by January 2013; after that, residents from non-compliant states won't be able to use their driver's licenses or ID cards for domestic flights at TSA checkpoints. But even with the deadline looming less than a year away, Corbett has said "no" to compliance. While perhaps a good fist-pumping political insistence on the preeminence of states' rights (which doesn't apply in the driver's license arena — the feds have been regulating driver's licenses for years), Corbett's mockery of the federal government is unnecessary for several reasons.

First, Corbett's claim that the feds will not enforce the law against innocent Pennsylvanians is precarious at best. What likely will happen is that the law requiring a REAL ID driver's license to get through TSA checkpoints will be unevenly implemented, leaving Pennsylvanians either sliding through security easily, delayed, or even turned away. In border-crossing contexts, ID requirements are often subject to individual officers' whims, and it is doubtful it would be different in the context of airline security. Where does that leave Pennsylvanians? Those who don't want the uncertainty of missing a flight would have to use a passport or military ID. Those without either would have to go to the passport office, spend $135, and wait four to six weeks. So forget that flight for a family emergency or last-minute business trip or getaway. Such results seem silly when Pennsylvanians could simply pay $35 at the DMV counter and receive a REAL ID license the same day.

Clearly the state would rather residents be inconvenienced and do the legwork themselves than simply get on board with REAL ID as 36 other states already have done. In fact, only five states have completely balked at REAL ID. The rest have embraced REAL ID for reasons including greater customer service, greater efficiencies, a reduction in crime, catching criminals wanted in their own state or another, a reduction in illegal alien presence, and significant displacement of fraud and identity theft.

Second, Corbett is claiming exorbitant costs of $140 million to comply with REAL ID, stating that for that reason alone the state can say no to REAL ID. According to an internal document titled "Estimated Costs to Implement the Federal REAL ID Program in Pennsylvania", however, only $5 million of the $140 million is directly attributable to REAL ID — upgraded photo equipment to take better-quality photos before applications, as required by REAL ID, accompanying IT, and staff training for the new equipment. This cost makes sense. Pennsylvania's costs are directly attributable to the number of driver's licenses issued. Florida has about one-third more residents that Pennsylvania, and its total cost for full REAL ID compliance was about $7 million.

The other costs listed are not related to REAL ID implementation. The most obvious is the $49 million for "communications/public relations". Most states are doing the bulk of REAL ID communications at no cost via their motor vehicle administration websites and media interviews. Also listed is a total of $87 million for expanding and relocating driver's license centers because, as the document states, "All of Pennsylvania's approximately 9.5 million driver's license and photo ID card holders will have to appear in person for the department to verify their identity." Why does this require a build-out? Because Pennsylvania has waited seven years to decide whether to fully implement REAL ID or not, and thus may run out of time to process driver's licenses in a timely fashion? Even this is exaggerated, however. Americans under the age of 50 have until January 2014 to acquire the upgraded license, while those over 50 will not need to present a REAL ID-compliant license at airports until January 2017. There is time, if Pennsylvania acts now. Yet even so, this is not truly a REAL ID cost, but a Pennsylvania-failing-to-do-what-it-should-have-done-years-ago cost because normal facilities are still not using full REAL ID application processing standards.

Third, Corbett complains that REAL ID compliance is too burdensome and that the state is better off improving security standards on its own. True, under the federal REAL ID Act, state systems must fully comply with 39 compliance benchmarks by January 2013. REAL ID is a lot of work. But yet another internal Pennsylvania document dated January 31, 2011 — almost a year and a half ago — shows that Pennsylvania already had completed 29 of the 39 benchmarks. Only four of the remaining 10 require any significant change in DMV processing and only one of those, a mandatory "photo first" capture, has any significant cost associated with it — most likely the $5 million noted in the budget assessment. That was almost a year and a half ago and progress may have been made. But even if the checklist is unchanged, Pennsylvania is within sight of compliance.

Then there is Gov. Corbett's claim that he made the decision not to comply with the federal driver's license law based on sound principles of federalism. Wrong again. For the past five years Pennsylvania has requested that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — responsible for overseeing implementation of the program and allocating federal funding to help states comply — provide both extensions for compliance (twice) and funding (four times). Each time the feds gave the state what it asked, and Pennsylvania to date has been allocated $4.2 million by Congress for compliance. And internal documents show Pennsylvania actually received $5.4 million from DHS through a series of specific requests. Has all that money been used to comply with REAL ID? No. Again, internal documents show that REAL ID monies have been used to add languages to driver's license tests and to help state police conduct driver's license fraud checks. Perhaps valid state goals, but they have little to do with REAL ID compliance. Corbett's appeal to state's rights and independence thus has shades of hypocrisy: Take the feds' time and taxpayer money, and run.

One last note: Terrorists — and criminals and illegal aliens — use driver's licenses to assimilate in the United States. Failing to secure driver's license credentialing opens states to increased fraud and criminality, as both Maryland and Massachusetts encountered in the last few years. Both staunch anti-REAL ID states, their non-compliance resulted in such a surge of increased crime and fraudulent activity that Maryland's anti-REAL ID governor held emergency legislative meetings to comply with REAL ID and Massachusetts is currently considering similar measures after police reported an uptick in crime because their security standards are now lower than other states. Pennsylvania residents may be the next victims thanks to their governor's decision

I wish Gov. Corbett luck. I'm guessing he already has a passport, otherwise he might be more in tune with how much he's inconveniencing his residents. I also suppose the smoke from Shanksville on September 11 left a sad memory, but little understanding of the role Pennsylvania can play in keeping bad guys from getting driver's licenses. We all know to what end a license obtained by a terrorist can be employed, whether driving to the airport or getting on a plane.

United Flight 93 and Secure IDs: The Case of Pilot Ziad Jarrah

Ziad Jarrah piloted United Airlines Flight 93. He crashed the plane into a Shanksville, Pa., field on September 11, 2001, when he came to believe that the cockpit would be stormed by Americans fighting behind the cockpit door with his "muscle" hijackers, and he could not make it to Washington, D.C. The audio of the cockpit, recovered at the scene and reviewed by 9/11 Commission staff, heard Jarrah repeating "Allah" as he nose-dived the plane like a screw into the ground – his orders were to suicide if he could not reach his destination.

On the morning of 9/11, Jarrah presented to airline personnel either a Florida driver's license (he had been issued two, one on May 2, 2001, and a duplicate on May 24, 2001) or a Virginia ID card obtained on August 29, 2001. We do not know which one he presented, but we do know he did not present his Lebanese passport, which would have received extra scrutiny by airline personnel, who may have denied him boarding.

We also learned that the duplicate driver's licenses, and the fraud with which the Virginia ID was obtained, were significant factors in helping Jarrah (and 18 of 19 hijackers) appear like American residents on the morning of 9/11, rather than foreign-born individuals who by protocol received extra scrutiny.

We also know that Jarrah's Virginia ID should not have been obtained at all. Fraud employed by seven hijackers in Virginia enabled each of them to successfully obtain ID cards within six weeks of 9/11. In fact, Jarrah's ID card was obtained by using fictitious information provided by Hani Hanjour, pilot of the Pentagon flight. Hanjour had paid an illegal alien he solicited at a 7-Eleven in Falls Church, Va., to certify Hanjour’s residency in the state.