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Real ID

We've all heard the expression, "Politics makes strange bedfellows." Well, few pieces of legislation have ever shown the truth in this adage more than HR 418: the so-called Real ID Act.

As you may recall, last year HR 418 was hidden in a military ("emergency," in post-9/11-ese) spending bill for which Congress voted. The Real ID Act mandates, among other things, that – beginning next year – states conform to standards set by the Federal government for issuing driver's licenses and other state-issued documents. These documents, as well as others, would be embedded with a so-called "blue chip" that would contain a person's medical and credit history as well as other personal information. US Passports issued after September 1, 2005 already contain such a chip.

The legislation also calls for a system of points – as most states already have – for obtaining new identification. As an example, in New York a passport counts as four points and toward the six required to obtain a driver's license or non-driver's ID. Such a system would be implemented nationwide as a result of HR 418.

States and other jurisdictions that issue identification cards have been given the option to opt out of such a system. However, it's not yet clear as to whether identification such as driver's licenses from such places would be usable in other parts of the nation.

The bill can also deny a person the right to new documentation because the information on one current document doesn't match that on another. For example, many people change their names because of marriage or other legitimate reasons. Such a person may have, for example, one name on her birth certificate but another on her driver's license, passport or even on her Social Security card.

What most people don't realize is that most states already had standards that were equal to – or more stringent than – those outlined in HR 418 before it was passed. In New Jersey and other states, lifelong residents with clean driving – and no criminal – records couldn't renew their licenses because of discrepancies like the ones outlined in the previous paragraph.

Unlike neighboring New York City, the Garden State doesn't have an extensive network of mass transportation. A person who can't get a driver's license thus has great difficulty in gaining or keeping employment.

An opponent of HR 418 succinctly summed up the situation: "You need ID to get ID. And no ID means no work."

No ID also means that a person can't board a plane or Amtrak or enter a government building. It would also more than likely mean no bank account, and no housing, as banks and most realtors and landlords already require a State or Federally issued ID before a person can open an account or sign a mortgage agreement or lease.

Now we come to the seemingly unlikely alliances that have formed over HR 418. On one hand, among the bill's proponents we find people – both in and out of public life – who excoriated Bill Clinton for passing legislation that gave the Federal government greater control over people's lives, such as certain provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. These same people argued that such legislation and his (Hillary's, actually) proposed universal health care plan (which, of course, never got off the ground) would turn this country into something that would make the landscape of "1984" seem like Utopia.

They have been joined by hysterical officials and laypeople who will endorse anything that can be attached to the word "security," however tenuously. So we see people who find nothing wrong with creating the Police State of America joining forces with those who claim to oppose governmental control of people's lives.

On the other hand, we find an equally strange – if happier – juxtaposition of interests in opposition to HR 418. They include those who are opposed to more or higher taxes (no one doubts that HR 418 will be very expensive to implement) and greater numbers and scope of regulations.

Allied with them we find civil libertarians and people who are concerned (rightly so) about the enormous potential for abuses of the bill's provisions. In the latter group we find, interestingly enough, security experts and law enforcement professionals who point out that such a system would greatly increase the risk of identity theft and other crimes. They also point out – as Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has – that the legislation will do nothing to deter criminals such as the 9/11 hijackers from entering the United States.

Joining the bill's opponents are also advocates for refugees, victims of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and people like battered spouses and teenagers who had to leave untenable family situations. Such people's documents may have been lost, destroyed or seized. How are they to go about building or rebuilding their lives if they can't get the necessary documentation?

Perhaps most intriguing of all are the jurisdictions that will or may not comply with HR 418. The States of New Hampshire and Washington have already said that they will opt out of the system; the City Council of New York has talked of doing the same and of persuading New York State to go along with them.

Politically and socially, two places could hardly be more different than New York City and New Hampshire, and Washington – outside the Seattle metropolitan area – bears more political resemblance to New Hampshire than it does to nearby California. (For that matter, much of upstate New York is in a different political grove from the Big Apple.) Their reasons may be different, but they have all seen the potential for harm in HR 418.

Who would've thought he or she would ever see the day when Amnesty International allies would align themselves with state's rights advocates? I, for one, hope those strange bedfellows have a beautiful friendship – one that overcomes the mindless fear and cynicism that engendered HR 418 in the first place.

April 22, 2006