We all know that whenever the 109th Congress was faced between a choice between fear and common sense, common sense was always the loser by a knockout. One of the greatest monuments to their casual relationship with reality has to be the federal Real ID act -- a Congressional done deal that's going to have all 300 million of us tagged for surveillance like feedlot beef within the next few years.
Real ID gives the states until May 2008 -- just 15 months -- to rework their driver's licenses into scannable, forgery-proof cards full of embedded personal information about the bearer. Those applying for the card will be required to present a Social Security card, a birth certificate, proof of residency (like a recent utility bill), and another photo ID of some sort, like a passport or employer ID. All the provided information, along with your fingerprints and other government records (criminal records, property ownership, etc.) goes into a digital database that will be readily accessible to federal, state, and local government employees in the course of their jobs.
While this database isn't likely to make us any safer from terrorists, it's going to open up vast new career vistas for would-be identity thieves -- and put millions of government employees directly in the path of that temptation. And God help you if you can't summon the required documents. Say you live with your parents or kids, or are transient, and thus don't have a utility bill in your own name. Say you don't have a job or a passport, and therefore can't provide a picture ID. Say you lost your birth certificate in, oh, maybe a flood, along with all the rest of your life's records. (It happens.)
If you can't pony up the documents, the Know-Nothing 109th reasoned, you must be a terrorist. (Except, of course, that the actual 9/11 terrorists went out of their way to create just such paper trails for themselves, and thus would have had no problem getting their Real ID cards.) On that senseless presumption, the Real ID law mandates that, in very short order, nobody will be able to board an airplane or enter a federal government building without a verified ID card in hand. (Banning people from government buildings -- yeah, there's a way to increase compliance with all sorts of laws.) Odds are good your bank won't be having anything more to do with you, either.
The discussions over whether and how to implement Real ID are also prompting almost every state to take a second look at how they deal with issuing official documents to illegal immigrants. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is tracking state reactions to Real ID, the law does allow states to issue "non-conforming" drivers licenses -- license that grant the right to drive, but may not be used as verified ID as defined by Real ID. Those who can't summon the full set of documentation can still become licensed drivers and buy insurance; but they can't use their license to verify identity for other purposes. These non-conforming licenses are usually prominently flagged, identifying the bearer as, well, unreal.
The states, as you might imagine, are not happy with this huge new unfunded mandate. Stacey A. Anderson, writing in the Los Angeles Times, reports that "Congress initially appropriated $100 million to put the system in place nationwide, but officials in Maine estimated that the program could cost $185 million in that state alone. The National Conference of State Legislatures has put the nationwide cost of implementation at about $11 billion."
The Rebel Alliance is forming -- and has begun to strike back. Last Thursday, Maine's legislature fired the first shot over the bow, telling Congress point-blank just where they could stick the whole idiotic idea. According to the Times, both houses voted -- unanimously in the Senate and 137 to 4 in the House -- to reject the act wholesale. They're also formally asking Congress to repeal Real ID. The ACLU confirms that several other states, including Georgia, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Washington, may soon fall in behind Maine's lead.
This is one of those rare situations where an important national civil liberties battle can successfully be fought at the state level. Given the short deadlines they're under, most states are going to be working out their policy responses to Real ID between now and this summer. Fortunately, it’s usually a lot easier to get the attention of a state legislator than it is to get through to a Congressperson -- so these people, in every state, need to be hearing loudly from us that Real ID is an unreal idea. It's going to be up to the individual states to hold the line, and refuse to cave in and do the dirty work of a federal government that has lost all sight of its own Constitutional boundaries.