House approves electronic ID cards
By Declan McCullagh
The U.S. House of Representatives approved on Thursday a sweeping set of rules aimed at forcing states to issue all adults federally approved electronic ID cards, including driver's licenses.
Under the rules, federal employees would reject licenses or identity cards that don't comply, which could curb Americans' access to airplanes, trains, national parks, federal courthouses and other areas controlled by the federal government. The bill was approved by a 261-161 vote.
The measure, called the Real ID Act, says that driver's licenses and other ID cards must include a digital photograph, anticounterfeiting features and undefined "machine-readable technology, with defined minimum data elements" that could include a magnetic strip or RFID tag. The Department of Homeland Security would be charged with drafting the details of the regulation.
Republican politicians argued that the new rules were necessary to thwart terrorists, saying that four of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers possessed valid state-issued driver's licenses. "When I get on an airplane and someone shows ID, I'd like to be sure they are who they say they are," said Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, during a floor debate that started Wednesday.
States would be required to demand proof of the person's Social Security number and confirm that number with the Social Security Administration. They would also have to scan in documents showing the person's date of birth and immigration status, and create a massive store "so that the (scanned) images can be retained in electronic storage in a transferable format" permanently.
Another portion of the bill says that states would be required to link their DMV databases if they wished to receive federal funds. Among the information that must be shared: All data fields printed on drivers' licenses and identification cards, and complete drivers' histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions and points on licenses.
The Bush administration threw its weight behind the Real ID Act, which has been derided by some conservative and civil liberties groups as tantamount to a national ID card. The White House said in a statement this week that it "strongly supports House passage" of the bill.
Thursday's vote mostly fell along party lines. About 95 percent of the House Republicans voted for the bill, which had been prepared by the judiciary committee chairman, F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican. More than three-fourths of the House Democrats opposed it.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from Washington, D.C., charged that Republicans were becoming hypocrites by trampling on states' rights. "I thought the other side of the aisle extols federalism at all times," Norton said. "Yes, even in hard times, even when you're dealing with terrorism. So what's happening now? Why are those who speak up for states whenever it strikes their fancy doing this now?"
Civil libertarians and firearm rights groups condemned the bill before the vote. The American Civil Liberties Union likened the new rules to a "de facto national ID card," saying that the measure would force "states to deny driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants" and make DMV employees act as agents of the federal immigration service.
Because an ID is required to purchase a firearm from a dealer, Gun Owners of America said the bill amounts to a "bureaucratic back door to implementation of a national ID card." The group warned that it would "empower the federal government to determine who can get a driver's license--and under what conditions."