Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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In Our View: Congress should repeal unenforced Real ID law

The Columbian

In many ways, an unenforced law is worse than no law at all. When government repeatedly implies “oh, we didn’t really mean it” or “sure, we passed a mandate, but it doesn’t matter,” it undermines the power of legitimate and necessary laws.

Such is the case with the Real ID Act, which was passed in 2005 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Some 17 years after the law was passed and more than two decades after the terrorist attacks, the federal government again has pushed back the deadline for implementation of Real ID.

Mind you, this is not a complaint about the reasoning behind the Real ID Act or an argument about whether it is necessary. But if a law is so unimportant that the federal government can repeatedly push back implementation — we’re talking about nearly two decades, not a couple months — then Congress should simply repeal it.

The Real ID Act was passed to, as the Washington State Department of Licensing website explains, “set new requirements for identification that federal agencies may accept for domestic air travel and entrance to certain federal facilities.”

From a practical standpoint, that limits the types of identification that are acceptable for boarding a plane or, for example, visiting the local IRS office. In Washington, a standard driver’s license would not qualify; residents would have to obtain an enhanced license — or some other ID, such as a passport — in order to board a commercial airline.

Each state has its own standards for issuing a driver’s license, so the Real ID conundrum means different things in different states. The Washington Legislature has worked in recent years to smooth the process for obtaining a license, but if the Real ID Act is ever implemented, it would leave hundreds of thousands of residents scrambling to update their identification. It also likely would leave many residents frustrated when they try to board a flight, being oblivious to the changing requirements.

Now, after several previous delays, the federal government has pushed the deadline back to May 7, 2025.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that only 43 percent of state-issued IDs as of 2021 met the law’s requirements, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a backlog in state licensing departments.

While the pandemic had an impact, it is more likely that relatively few people have adequate identification because they are confident deadlines will continue to be altered.

Therein lies the problem. If a law is not being enforced after 17 years, there is no reason to believe it ever will be — and there is plenty of reason to question the need for it. As Emma Camp writes for Reason magazine, “There is precious little in way of evidence supporting the idea that this additional hurdle could prevent terrorism.”

Indeed, preventing a repeat of 9/11 is a paramount goal. It is the reason we remove our shoes and open our laptops while going through security checkpoints at airports. It is the reason tubes of toothpaste or bottles of shampoo on carry-on bags may not exceed 3.4 ounces.

But our nation has managed to avoid another airliner-based terrorist attack without the requirement of enhanced passenger identification, and the federal government — under both Democratic and Republican presidents — has repeatedly said that requirement is not worth inconveniencing travelers.

In the wake of such complacency, the logical step is for Congress to repeal the Real ID Act.