License denied

After the Democrats caved, state officials and privacy advocates led the opposition to driver’s license changes

The lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles will likely get longer under legislation approved by Congress.

The lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles will likely get longer under legislation approved by Congress.

Photo By David Robert

Every member of Congress from Nevada voted for legislation making it more difficult to get or renew a driver’s license—even the ones who opposed it.

Now Nevada state lawmakers are scrambling to try to figure out whether they need to make provisions for the new federal driver’s license law in the 19 days remaining in this year’s state legislative session.

The measure, House Resolution 1268 (now Public Law 109-13), a.k.a. “Real ID,” is under attack from liberals, conservatives and state governments.

In a May 5 vote in the House, Nevada Republicans Jim Gibbons and Jon Porter were joined in voting for the measure by Democrat Shelley Berkley, who had opposed a previous incarnation of the measure in a February vote. Fifty-eight members of the House voted against H.R. 1268.

In the Senate, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign voted for the measure—no senator opposed it—after Reid declined to lead a floor fight.

The measure prompted furious opposition organizing on the Internet, and some state officials are threatening to disobey the law. Among other provisions of the new law that will require personal appearances at the Department of Motor Vehicles, drivers—including those renewing licenses—will have to present four documents proving identity and citizenship, and the DMV will have to verify the authenticity of the documents.

Meanwhile, privacy groups warn that the new law is groundwork for a national identification card.

Republicans tacked the driver’s license changes onto a supplemental war-funding bill on the assumption that Democrats wouldn’t want to be seen as voting against money for troops. The Democrats responded by promptly surrendering. Democratic floor leader Reid knocked down efforts to try to stop the legislation, resisting calls by Democrats like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to take a more aggressive stance.

“They [Republicans] did it on purpose,” Reid said on April 25. “They put it on a supplemental, which they knew you couldn’t stop. I’ve had a senator come to me and say, ‘We’re going to filibuster this.’ I said, ‘Get real. It’s not going to happen. It’s a defense bill.’ “

After the Democrats’ collapse, the Unification Church newspaper Washington Times summed up the situation in a headline: “War bill shields I.D. Act from ax.” A Democratic congressman from Florida, Robert Wexler, issued a statement blasting his fellow Democrats: “While I am heartened that 57 of my colleagues joined me in opposing [the new law], I am baffled that so many Democrats caved in to the parliamentary tricks of the Republican leadership. Though I have come to expect as much from Republicans … Democrats have abandoned our core values and failed to stand up for the rights to privacy, fair treatment under the law and freedom from persecution upon which our country was founded.”

Nevada’s Berkley said, “You know, when they throw everything but the kitchen sink in, things that aren’t germane, you’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard spot. I obviously wasn’t going to vote against our troops.”

Some powerful groups, such as the National Governors Association, the Council of State Governments and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, lined up against the legislation.

The organization Fair Immigration Reform Movement informed its members, “If your Senator is a Democrat, they should tell their leadership—Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Harry Reid (D-NV)—that they oppose the [driver’s license] act, don’t want to see it as part of appropriations legislation, and that attaching it may bog down the appropriations bill in extended debate.” As it turned out, without the Democrats, there was little debate.

Legal Momentum, a women’s rights group, argued that the measure will “erode critical protections passed by Congress in the Violence Against Women Acts in 1994 and 2000. REAL ID would jeopardize the lives of domestic-abuse victims, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, by requiring them to use their residential address on driver’s licenses and making many noncitizen victims ineligible for a driver’s license.”

The governors association and the National Conference of State Legislators had already sent a joint letter to Reid and Republican floor leader Bill Frist saying that identification security had already been addressed by Congress in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004. Their letter read, “Our states have made great strides since the September 11, 2001, terrorists attacks to enhance the security processes and requirements for receiving a valid driver’s license and ID card. The framework in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 will allow us to work cooperatively with the federal government to develop and implement achievable standards to prevent document fraud and other illegal activity related to the issuance of driver’s licenses and ID cards. We urge you to allow the provisions in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 to work.”

During the legislative battle, the Bush administration timed a series of busts of alleged fraudulent driver’s license makers, creating a climate of urgency for the legislation.

In Carson City, meanwhile, state legislators tried to figure out how the state will cope. Some states expect to have to spend tens of millions of dollars complying with new requirements for standard features in driver’s licenses. Legislators said long efforts by state government to make trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles unnecessary by providing computer renewals could be set back years.

Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairwoman Chris Giunchigliani says the committee hasn’t yet dealt with the new law.

“I am very concerned about the intent of this legislation,” she says. “The federal government will directly impact our state budget by adding a fiscal [requirement]. We have struggled for years to reduce the waiting time in line at DMV, and this will only add more time for our constituents. I also am concerned with an individual’s right to privacy. Big Brother is here under the guise of security.”

Some members of the Legislature, struggling to complete their work, are still under the impression that the H.R. 1268 has not yet passed Congress. “It is next to impossible to determine what, if anything, will ultimately be passed by Congress and who will fund it,” one state legislator said on May 16, five days after the bill passed Congress. When told the bill was already law, she said, “Well, I guess I haven’t been paying much attention to the feds, huh?” She pointed out that on the day the U.S. Senate gave final passage to H.R. 1268 (news coverage of which was skimpy), state lawmakers were consumed by retiree health insurance issues.

The state legislators have little time left to decide what to do about the problem—they must adjourn by June 7. Congress has given the states three years to come into compliance with the new law, and if Nevada’s Legislature puts the task off until 2007 (the Legislature meets only every other year), time to buy sophisticated computer gear and bring it on line would be short. If the lawmakers didn’t act early in the 2007 legislature, DMV could have only six months to do the job.

Washoe County Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, who had been asking questions for several days about the impact of the federal law, says legislative researchers told her, “According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, this could have the potential for impacting lines and waiting times in DMV offices. The department is not fully certain of the impact and did not raise any budgetary issues associated with this mandate since it has a three-year implementation period from the date it was signed into law … and probably will not impact the department during the 2005-07 biennium.

“I would expect to see the department come forward with a funding request during the 2007 session to address either customer service or computer programming needs. Also, there is some potential for the feds to provide assistance to the states to implement this mandate. However, it sounds like it would need to come from Congress, since the administration is not supporting additional funding for implementation.”