Posted by Jim Harper
With the move in the Senate to revive our moribund national ID law, the REAL ID Act, under the name “PASS ID,” it’s important to look at whether we’re still dealing with a national ID law. My assessment is that we are.
First, PASS ID is modeled directly on REAL ID. The structure and major provisions of the two bills are the same. Just like REAL ID, PASS ID sets national standards for identity cards and drivers’ licenses, withholding federal recognition if they are not met.
There is no precise definition of a national identification card or system, of course, but its elements are relatively easy to identify.
First, it is national. That is, it is intended to be used throughout the country, and to be nationally uniform in its key elements. REAL ID and PASS ID have the exact same purpose – to create a nationally uniform identity system.
Second, its possession or use is either practically or legally required. A card or system that is one of many options for proving identity or other information is not a national ID if people can decline to use it and still easily access goods, services, or infrastructure. But if law or regulation make it very difficult to avoid carrying or using a card, this presses it into the national ID category.
Neither REAL ID nor PASS ID directly mandate carrying a card. Doing so would be too obviously a national ID system, and politically unpalatable. But both seek to take advantage of the state driver licensing system, and they do that for a reason: Carrying a driver’s license is a practical requirement in most parts of the country, where the automobile reigns supreme as the mode of travel.
But maybe states would decline to participate. Nothing in the PASS ID Act directly requires states to implement the system, and they are entirely free to issue non-compliant licenses and ID cards. But this was also true of REAL ID – because of the constitutional rule that the federal government cannot commandeer the organs of state government. (The case is New York v. United States.)
What both REAL ID and PASS ID do is make it difficult for state residents to function without their nationally standardized ID. They both require the nationally standardized ID to enter federal facilities (perhaps fewer of them under PASS ID), to access nuclear power plants, and to board aircraft.
But the PASS ID bill has specific language saying that a person can’t be denied boarding because they don’t have a national ID. Isn’t that an improvement? It sounds like it, but that language simply restates the rules that exist under REAL ID.
The TSA has never been able to deny people boarding because they don’t have an ID. (Many people have traveled without ID to prove the point.)
What the Department of Homeland Security does is make it really inconvenient to travel without showing ID. Not having your national ID can put you into a long secondary-search delay. And a year ago, the Transportation Security Administration created a new rule allowing them to turn travelers away if they “willingly” refuse to show ID and don’t “assist transportation security officers in ascertaining their identity.”
What this means is that people not showing ID have to answer questions about themselves for a TSA background check – a background check that has included political party affiliation. In other words, you either participate in the national ID system run by states, or you participate in the cardless national ID system that the TSA runs. (The TSA was storing information about who traveled without ID until it got caught.)
The rules are no different between REAL ID and the REAL ID revival bill, PASS ID. You don’t have to carry a national ID to get through the airport, but woe to the person who tries to exercise that freedom.