Passport rules require review

Congress and the Homeland Security Department are on a collision course over the phased-in deadlines for a controversial passport requirement proposed by the Bush administration.

Based on a public outcry and the inability of the State Department to process passport applications in a timely manner, the House voted convincingly last week to delay for 17 months the first passport deadline requiring Americans to show a passport to reenter the country by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean.

The Senate is expected to vote on the issue when members return from their July Fourth break. The senators shouldn't hesitate to follow the House's lead.

Congress is right to delay the first of the upcoming passport deadlines until at least June of 2009. Federal agencies have shown no ability to respond to all the demands for passports by the current January 2008 deadline for some of the foreign destinations. The State Department is faced with a backlog of some 500,000 passport applications that have been in the pipeline for up to 12 weeks.

The Bush administration conceded last week that there is a crack in the system when it temporarily waived a passport requirement for air travel at least until September, as long as air travelers can prove they have applied for a passport.

The anti-terrorism passport rules are simply overwhelming the ability of federal officials to process passport applications. If Homeland Security prevails with the current deadlines, the travel plans of thousands of people will be disrupted, and for what?

The passport rules were crafted in the name of increased border security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Homeland Security officials charge Congress is tempting fate, leaving the door open for terrorists to enter the country and wreck havoc, if the passport deadlines are allowed to slip.

But imagine the very real chaos that could occur if the millions of people who routinely cross the borders into Mexico and Canada by land or sea are unable to secure the passports they need.

The temporary waiver for airline travel was in response to reports that thousands of innocent citizens awaiting passports were canceling trips or losing money on tickets the airlines wouldn't refund.

The passport requirement is a particularly critical issue here in Washington state where the public and private sector have grown accustomed to relatively easy access in and out of British Columbia.

One encouraging note: Homeland Security officials announced in March they would approve a pilot project here in Washington state to allow American citizens to use enhanced driver's licenses, rather than passports to cross the border into British Columbia.

The new driver's licenses will cost $40, compared to a $97 passport. And they could take anywhere from a week to 45 days to obtain, according to state licensing officials, The licenses will be available to the public beginning in January 2008, a full 18 months before border crossings between the United States and Canada become more restrictive.