HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
June 18, 2007, Herald Journal

Passport pandemonium

By IVAN RACONTEUR

The recent passport debacle proves once again that governmental myopia is a long way from being cured.

We should not be surprised by this, since the wizards in Washington are masters of passing legislation without seeing or preparing for consequences.

The US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security announced a change June 8 that will temporarily suspend passport requirements for some US citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico the Caribbean and Bermuda.

The about-face was the result of pressure from millions of irate citizens who were the victims of the latest governmental blunder.

It began with the implementation of the Wester Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which was mandated by Congress as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

Any time the government starts talking about intelligence, we should be concerned.

The initiative required that, as of last January, passports are required for persons traveling to and from Canada or Mexico by air.

Many of the security improvements that were made amidst the post-9/11 paranoia seem to be designed to inconvenience the legitimate traveling public rather than to target potential terrorists.

Shaking-down little white-haired grandmothers, confiscating peanut butter from senators, and taking shampoo and cosmetics from teens have probably not done much to improve national security, but they give the impression that the government is doing something.

It is apparently easier to sashay across the border with no identification at all than it is to enter the country on a commercial airline these days, judging from the 12 million or so illegal aliens that are currently enjoying our hospitality.

The passport requirement does make sense, though. No legitimate citizen should be concerned about showing a passport when entering or leaving the country. It is the way the change was implemented that caused the problem.

The temporary suspension of passport requirements is intended to give the state department time to work through the enormous backlog of passport applications under which it has been buried since the new regulations took effect in January.

It may have been prudent for the government to take into account the huge number of applications that the regulations would generate, but this did not happen.

As a result, members of Congress have been under increasing pressure from irate constituents who applied for passports and have not yet received them.

This includes some who paid for expedited processing service (which costs $60 more than the regular $97 passport fee).

The frustration increased when some of these people purchased airline tickets, but did not receive their passports in time to take their scheduled flights.

Turnaround times for passports doubled from six to 12 weeks, and the delays continued to increase.

The 14 US passport offices have been swamped with travelers hoping to salvage their travel plans.

The depth of the situation is illustrated by comments made by Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, who reportedly sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stating that in his opinion, “the state department has lost control of the situation.”

During a recent briefing, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Maura Harty admitted that the state department was not prepared for the volume of applications.

“What we did not anticipate adequately enough was the American citizens’ willingness and desire to comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the time frame that they did,” Harty said in a classic bureaucratic understatement.

Where else can we find this kind of logic? The government requires us to take a certain action, but is surprised when we take that action, and is unprepared to facilitate the action.

It has been reported that the department hired 145 people to work on the backlog, and plans to hire an additional 400 workers during the next quarter.

It might have been a good idea to have these people in place before the new regulations took effect, but that is not the way government works.

Even the temporary fix will not resolve the problem for some travelers.

It provides that US citizens who have applied for, but not yet received passports, can enter and depart from the US by air with a government issued photo identification and Department of State official proof of application for a passport through Sept. 30 (citizens with pending applications can obtain proof of application at http://travel.state.gov).

The state department was quick to point out that travelers who have not applied for a passport should not expect to be accommodated.

The temporary accommodation does not affect travel to other countries. Americans traveling to a country that requires passports will still need to present a passport for entry.

While the change may benefit some travelers, the relief may be temporary.

The second phase of the initiative, which will require passports at land and sea ports of entry, is expected to be implemented as early as January 2008.

This could result in more applications from travelers who leave and enter the country by ship, rail, or road.

The passport havoc could provide a valuable lesson, and persuade lawmakers not to pass new legislation without fully considering and planning for the consequences. It could happen, but don’t count on it.