Panel criticizes DHS over passport backlog
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire WASHINGTON -- The backlog of passport applications is a "national embarrassment," an influential House member told administration officials at a hearing Wednesday. Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs c...
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON -- The backlog of passport applications is a "national embarrassment," an influential House member told administration officials at a hearing Wednesday.
Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs criticized what they called poor planning for new passport rules that caused huge backlogs and long lines of hysterical travelers trying to get passports in time for long-planned trips.
A law passed in 2004 that went into effect in January requires U.S. citizens and those from Canada, Mexico and Bermuda to have passports to enter the U.S. Previously, other forms of identification were acceptable for trips to those countries and the Caribbean.
The law has caused an unprecedented influx of passport applications.
Representatives of the departments of State and Homeland Security told the committee they have worked as diligently as possible to fix the problem. But committee members said it is simply not enough.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the committee chair, called the passport backlog a "national embarrassment." He said the administration allowed the problem to escalate despite knowing about the influx three years in advance.
Lantos said U.S. citizens, many of whom have called congressional offices to complain, should not have to forgo their travel plans if they did their part to comply with the law.
"The U.S. passport system is broken, and the Americans are paying a painful price," Lantos said. "This is not brain surgery. It is merely a matter of proper planning and sufficient personnel."
State Department and DHS officials said they have worked together to increase the number of passport personnel and find more space for them to work in. But they admitted the administration underestimated passport demand.
Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the two departments projected passports demand to increase by 4 million over the 12 million issued yearly. The demand has approached and may exceed 18 million by year's end.
Harty said many passport applicants are applying for the documents to "prove they are citizens," even though they have no travel plans.
"We failed to project the amount of passport demands in a compressed time," Harty said, adding the agencies are trying to "make it easier for Americans to come see us."
To relieve pressure on the system, the administration announced last month that U.S. citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda who applied for but have not received their passports will be permitted to travel with proof of their passport application and authorized identification until Sept. 30.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., suggested phasing in the new requirements over a longer time instead of seeking help from other agencies as the passport office is now doing.
"You could have said, 'Oops, our bad, you don't need a passport to go to Canada and Mexico until 2009,'" Sherman said.
Paul Rosenzweig, DHS assistant secretary for policy, said that, although Sherman's suggestion might seem ideal to fix the problem, the administration wants to enforce the law for the sake of national security, which was the primary reason for the law.
"The disruption of other departments is trivial," Rosenzweig said. "The question is, what is the cost of delaying this program for national security? The program has more benefits for securing the nation."
Committee members urged the State Department and DHS to increase the number of diplomatic security investigators to prevent passport fraud and increase national security.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, R-Calif., said the Bureau of Consular Affairs' reports of passport fraud seem low compared to the increased passport demand. Two out of every 10,000 passports are reported to Diplomatic Security as fraudulent, mainly people applying under someone else's name.
"We have 129 diplomatic security agents. That number has not gone up," Royce said. "We should be able to serve the American people in a timely manner and ensure their security."
Committee members also urged the administration to accommodate people who paid $60 extra to expedite their passports but have not received them quickly.
Harty said the administration is willing to accommodate any unsatisfied applicants and will handle refunds on a case-by-case basis, and any passport problems that arise before Sept. 30 will be addressed in a timely manner
"We do not want to get into this situation again," Harty said.