The House recently passed legislation requiring states to turn 190 million driver's licenses into national ID cards, with state taxpayers paying most of the cost.
The first thing wrong here is that the House stuck the ID card proposal on the appropriations bill that supports troops in Iraq and sent it over to the Senate. We should not slow down money for our troops while we debate ID cards.
The second problem is that states not only get to create these ID cards, they'll likely end up paying the bill. This is one more of the unfunded federal mandates that we Republicans promised to stop.
Supporters argue that this is no mandate because states have a choice. True, states may refuse to conform to the proposed federal standards and issue licenses to whomever they choose, including illegal immigrants - but if they do, that state's licenses will not be accepted for "federal purposes," such as boarding an airplane. Some choice. What governor will deny his or her citizens the identification they need to travel by air and cash Social Security checks, or for "other federal purposes?"
Of course, the ID card may still backfire on Congress. Some feisty governor may say, "Who are these people in Washington telling us what to do with our drivers' licenses and making us pay for them, too? California will use its licenses for certifying drivers, and Congress can create its own ID card for people who want to fly and do other federally regulated things - and if they do not, I will put on the Internet the home telephone numbers of all the congressmen."
If just one state refused to do the federal government's ID work, Congress would be forced to create what it claims to oppose - a federal ID card for citizens of that state.
Finally, if we must have a better ID card for some federal purposes, then there are better ideas than turning state driver's license examiners into CIA agents. Congress might create an airline traveler's card. Or there could be an expanded use of U.S. passports. Since a motive here is to discourage illegal immigration, probably the most logical idea is to upgrade the Social Security card, which directly relates to the reason most immigrants come to the United States: to work.
I have fought government ID cards as long and as hard as anyone. In 1983, when I was governor of Tennessee, our legislature voted to put photographs on driver's licenses. Merchants and policemen wanted a state ID card to discourage check fraud and teen-age drinking. I vetoed this photo driver's license bill twice because I believed driver's licenses should be about driving and that state ID cards infringed on civil liberties.
That same year, on a visit to the White House, when a guard asked for my photo ID, I said, "We don't have them in Tennessee. I vetoed them." The guard said, "You can't get in without one." The governor of Georgia, who had his photo ID driver's license, vouched for me. I was admitted to the White House, the legislature at home overrode my veto and I gave up my fight against a state ID card.
For years state driver's licenses have served as de facto national ID cards. They have been unreliable. All but one of the Sept. 11 terrorists had a valid driver's license. Even today, when I board an airplane, security officials look at the front of my driver's license, which expired in 2000, and rarely turn it over to verify that it has been extended until 2005.
I still detest the idea of a government ID card. South Africa's experience is a grim reminder of how such documents can be abused. But I'm afraid this is one of the ways Sept. 11 has changed our lives. Instead of pretending we are not creating national ID cards when we obviously are, Congress should carefully create an effective federal document that helps prevent terrorism - with as much respect for privacy as possible.