Congress Moves On Legislation To Ease Passport Crisis

Monday, July 16th 2007, 4:10 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Help may be on the way to deal with the backlog of unprocessed passport requests. Legislation passed Monday by the House would make it easier for the State Department to rehire retired personnel to pitch in.

The bill, approved by voice vote, responds to the department's inability to cope with a deluge of passport applications this year, resulting in long processing delays and leaving many without passports needed for trips abroad.

The sharp increase in applications followed the enactment of a law last January requiring those returning by air from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a passport.

The bill would grant the State Department flexibility to rehire, on a temporary basis, retired foreign service passport adjudicators. It would waive rules that deny pension payments to retirees returning to work when they exceed strict wage and hour caps.

The House bill makes slight changes to a Senate version that passed last month. The Senate could take up the House measure in the coming days, sending it to the president for his signature.

``Hopefully, this will get experienced people at their desks this summer to help people get their passports,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sponsor of the Senate bill. The State Department has said it expects to hire back 50 to 100 adjudicators this year as a result of the legislation.

Passport applications were expected to approach 18 million this year in the wake of the new law aimed at tightening border controls and blocking those trying to enter the country illegally. About 12 million applications were received last year.

The time needed to process applications doubled from the usual six weeks to 12 weeks, and passport offices around the country have been overwhelmed by long lines of people trying to get passports in time for summer trips.

``Millions of Americans are facing unprecedented delays,'' said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. ``As weeks become months these painful holdups have wrecked long-planned travel, job opportunities and family obligations for thousands of our fellow citizens.''

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, acknowledged to a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week that her office failed to predict the level of demand.

Harty said some applicants apparently were not aware that the passport requirement currently applies only to air travelers, with the extension to land and sea travelers not going into effect until 2008 at the earliest. She also noted that many non-travelers were now applying for passports because they view the document as a solid form of identification.

The department has taken steps to reducing the backlog by hiring new staff, shifting young diplomats to passport duties and operating two or three shifts at some passport offices. Last month the State Department waived the passport rule until the end of September for travelers who can show proof they have applied for a passport.

Harty said the processing time is now down to about 10 weeks.