Waiting in the HLSWatch.com inbox upon my return from Big Sky, Montana, were scanned copies of correspondence between DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker and Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath about the state’s request to opt out of the REAL ID Act.
DHS granted an extension on Friday to the state of Montana so that it can comply with the REAL ID Act. The only thing is that Montana never asked for an extension. Montana governor Brian Schweitzer made news over his intention to defy the law passed by Congress in 2005. Schweitzer is leading a charge (joined by Maine, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma) to oppose the REAL ID Act and any efforts by DHS to impose penalties for non-compliance.
The 9/11 Commission recommended that the U.S. rationalize the state identification regime in order to reduce the risk of fraud (suspected to aid terrorists and criminals alike). The Commission argued that the federal government should â€œset standards for the issuance of … driverâ€™s licenses.â€ The REAL ID Act requires that a standardized driverâ€™s license be used for â€œofficial purposes.â€ At this point, DHS proposes to define “official purposes” of a REAL ID as accessing federal facilities and nuclear power plants and boarding commercial aircraft. The main beef states have with the Act is the lack of funding to pay for the mandate. DHS is stretching out the compliance period over almost ten years (2014) to make it easier on states, but that only avoids the REAL problem according to Governor Schweitzer. Schweitzer and the Montana state legislature oppose it on principle.
(It sure doesn’t help that the Secretary suggested contrarians should “grow up” about security measures, such as the REAL ID provisions. The statement emboldened critics to examine his tenure more closely and shift the focus away from REAL ID.)
Montana seeks a complete waiver, but DHS’s Stewart Baker explained in a letter to Montana’s Attorney General that DHS has only the authority to carry out the statute or grant extensions to state’s that “meet the requirements” of the REAL ID Act.
Frankly, after Montana’s governor has called the law â€œnonsensicalâ€, “kooky,” and “hare-brained,” and invited other states to join him in a showdown over “the DHS coercion to comply,” I’m impressed with Baker’s dispassionate response. Baker wrote in a response the same day he received McGrathâ€™s letter:
Under the statute, the Department [of Homeland Security] can only grant an extension of the compliance deadline [as opposed to a waiver.] Therefore, I can only provide the relief you are seeking by treating your letter as a request for an extension.
Of course, Schweitzer’s whole deal is that he’ll never seek an extension because it would be interpreted as intention to implement the Act.