Real ID gets an extension

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune

Late Friday afternoons are usually reserved for bad news, when, presumably, most people are too busy thinking about the weekend to care about anything much.

But this time the news was pretty good. At least for now.

On the Friday in question, Jan. 8, the Department of Homeland Security announced that whatever state-issued identification is in your wallet will suffice until 2018 to get past airport security. Most observers had assumed that 2016 would be the year that the federal government finally played hardball regarding Real ID, the program intended to tighten security standards for state-issued identification. Instead, after years of kicking the proverbial can down the proverbial road, Homeland Security decided to kick just a little farther.


It turned out that travelers wouldn’t need to worry about Real ID until Jan. 22, 2018 at the earliest.

Andrew Meehan, policy director of Washington nonprofit Keeping Identities Safe, who has tracked the issue for several years, was surprised at the announcement. But it also made sense to him that Homeland Security wouldn’t want to take on the issue.

“They don’t want to deal with it, don’t want bad press and have their own priorities,” Meehan said.

The truth is, few people seem to want to deal with Real ID.

Congress passed the law in 2005, following a 9/11 Commission recommendation to take steps that would make it tougher to counterfeit government-issued IDs. The standards include verifying an applicant’s identity and conducting background checks on the state workers who issue driver’s licenses.

However, taking such steps comes at a cost to each state that’s well into the millions of dollars. Twenty-three states have become compliant with Real ID. But elsewhere, opposition has been strong, and even included former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who argued that the law should be overturned. Several states have also opposed Real ID, whether claiming federal overreach (Minnesota, Louisiana) or poverty (Illinois).

Twenty-seven states and territories that are not compliant with Real ID, but that have shown willingness to eventually comply, have been granted extensions. Six other states and territories – Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Washington, and American Samoa – are considered noncompliant, and do not have extensions. Residents of those places were the biggest winners with the announcement of the 2018 deadline; the thought was that they might face additional security screening or else need passports to fly by as soon as this summer.


So the can has been kicked. But what if those states still aren’t in compliance by 2018?

There are several possible outcomes. One is that those states might become compliant. For instance, a bill aimed at compliance with Real ID stalled in the Illinois state assembly in 2015. If legislators sense that the new deadline is serious, that bill could be resurrected.

Another option could be a change of heart on the matter of an extension from Homeland Security. The six states and territories could still be granted extensions lasting until Oct. 1, 2020. Or, anyone who lives in a state that isn’t compliant with Real ID can simply use alternate forms of ID to board an airplane, such as a passport, passport card or Global Entry card. Whether their state embraces Real ID wouldn’t matter, even if needing a passport to fly domestically might be a hassle.

In the meantime, Homeland Security has pledged to increase communication with the traveling public about the matter of Real ID, including signs and handouts at airports by the end of the year.

Meehan predicted that 2016 will be a bellwether year on Real ID, as state legislators decide whether to embrace the law and a new president signals whether enacting it will be a priority. Under President Obama, Homeland Security clearly hasn’t been interested in the fight.

“The silver lining of all the recent discussion about Real ID is that editorial boards and state legislatures are finally taking a closer look,” Meehan said.

We have another couple of years to ignore Real ID compliance. But one way or another, the bill is going to come due.