Stateline Story

Drivers' licenses to face new federal standards

The landmark U.S. intelligence overhaul passed by Congress Wednesday (Dec. 8) includes the first mandatory federal identification standards for drivers' licenses, birth certificates and other forms of state-issued ID, little-noticed provisions that have some wary state officials upset over what one terms "an end run on states' rights."

The intelligence bill, which stemmed from recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks, requires the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security to establish minimum identification standards for drivers' licenses and other state-issued identification cards. If a state's license does not meet the standards in two years, federal agencies will not be allowed to accept it as valid identification for such purposes as boarding airplanes and many other common transactions of daily life.

The bill also sets a two-year deadline for states to conform with minimum standards for birth certificates. Those will be set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Maryland Del. John Hurson (D), president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, has called efforts to establish minimum standards for drivers' licenses "nothing more than an end-run on states' rights."

Never before has the federal government regulated state-issued drivers' licenses or birth certificates. Rule-making committees, which will include elected state officials, will be formed to help develop the standards.

Because state-issued drivers' licenses are the primary devices used to establish identity in the United Statees they commonly are used to board airplanes and to complete financial transactions, for example federal and state homeland security officials have a keen interest in ensuring they are made more secure.

The fact that four of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers obtained valid licenses (from Florida, New Jersey and Virginia) focused an especially dramatic spotlight on this issue. Sharp increases in cases of identity theft and concerns about fraud by underage individuals and illegal immigrants have aggravated concerns.

The intelligence bill would require that each license include a digital photograph of the holder as well as the holder's full name, date of birth, gender and drivers' license or personal identification number. While some states already meet all these requirements, others do not. States also will be required to meet stiffer standards for the documentation they accept as proof of identity from license applicants, for the processes by which they verify those documents and for the means by which licenses are issued.

The legislation authorizes federal grants to help states pay the cost of upgrading their licenses, but Cheye Calvo, who handles federal-state issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said state lawmakers fear that the money might not actually be delivered. In the past, Calvo said, "promises of federal money never materialized."

"We think that it is very important that Congress actually comes up with the money to implement these standards," he said. "We don't want the intelligence bill to be the biggest unfunded mandate of the 108th Congress."

The grants to states would be allocated based on average number of drivers' licenses, identification cards and birth certificates a state issues each year, with no state receiving less than 0.5 percent of the total available funds.

The legislation, which appeared permanently stalled early this week, was jump-started by a compromise on another section of the bill that regulates chain-of-command on the battlefield. The House quickly brought the bill to the floor and passed it easily on Tuesday. Senate passage on Wednesday completed congressional action and moved the bill forward for signature by President Bush, a strong supporter.

Calvo said Congress' move could hamper efforts already under way in states to make licenses more secure.

"Our concern is that federal standards will stifle innovation because states are doing things differently from each other," he said. "But all states are advancing the ball in terms of security. ... To try and impose a one-size-fits-all approach, I think, is short-sighted."

The bill aims to address some state officials' concerns by barring the federal government from requiring a single driver's license design, by preserving states' powers to determine who is eligible for a license and by calling for procedures to protect the privacy of license applicants and holders.

"There is a real concern out there that this federal framework not turn into a national ID," Calvo said.

The bill's birth-certificate provisions require stronger standards to verify identity before a certificate is issued, to process certificates and to have a state or local official certify them. They also expressly bar requiring a single design.

While state officials are far from pleased with the imposition of new standards regulating state-issued identification, two other measures included in earlier versions of the bill caused them much more heartburn.

One would have forced states to require drivers' license applicants to demonstrate legal presence in the United States, in effect barring states from issuing licenses to illegal immigrants. Only 10 states currently lack a legal presence requirement, in any case.

That requirement and other immigration reforms have the support of many House Republicans – most notably House Judiciary Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who for a time helped block a congressional vote on the overall intelligence bill unless it addressed the illegal aliens issue.

Consideration of such requirements likely will re-emerge soon after Congress reconvenes in January.

An earlier version of the bill also would have changed the formula for distributing homeland security grants to state and local governments, but that the change was dropped from the conference report.

The bill does include language urging Congress to distribute monies based on assessments of which areas face the greatest threat from a terrorist attack.