Congressman Tom Lantos, Chairman

July 11, 2007

Verbatim, as delivered

Statement by Chairman Lantos at hearing, “Passport Delays: Affecting Security and Disrupting Free Travel and Trade”

The U.S. passport system is broken, and Americans are paying a painful price. Every citizen of our nation has the right to hold a passport, and getting one should be a matter of a few weeks’ wait at most. But millions of Americans – our constituents -- have been reduced to begging and pleading, waiting for months on end, simply for the right to travel abroad.

We are here today to see that this national embarrassment gets fixed -- and fixed fast. This is not brain surgery. It is merely a matter of proper planning and sufficient personnel.

Last week I visited the regional passport office in my congressional district in San Francisco. Hundreds of would-be travelers were lined up out the door and around the block. Many had arrived at dawn with small children in tow. Some were desperate to get the one document that would let them see ailing relatives overseas. Many university students were anxious about missing classes at the start of their programs of study abroad. One man flew I met in from Los Angeles in hope of a finding shorter line in San Francisco so he could get his passport, fly back to Los Angeles, and leave for a trip the very next day.

Behind the scenes at the bustling passport agency, I witnessed hard-working employees who had been staying through the night and giving up their weekends to work their way through the backlog of applications. At other passport bureaus across our land, the State Department has shipped in junior staff and rehired retirees to meet the crushing demand.

None of this should have been necessary; for lack of simple foresight, the Administration has placed tremendous strain on these public servants and the public as a whole.

The State Department was caught flat-footed after Congress passed a law almost three years ago requiring travelers to show passports if they were returning from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. The Bureau of Consular Affairs had projected that demand created by this so-called Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative would rise from 12 million passports last year to 16 million in 2007. But now we hear that the demand may approach or even exceed 18 million before the year is out.

We tried to help the Department cope. This committee produced a law to permit a surcharge on passport applications so that more passport workers could be brought on board. But hiring has proceeded at a snail’s pace, and training has been lethargic. There have been more prosaic problems, too: The regional director in San Francisco told me space was too tight to accommodate the number of people needed to process all the applications, and shockingly enough, there weren’t enough printers to churn the needed passports out.

What a travesty, and all too reminiscent of how badly the Administration botched the job of planning and responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But this time we saw the storm coming three years in advance, yet the Administration still failed to act.

It would take hundreds, perhaps thousands, of additional so-called adjudicators – the people who decide whether an applicant receives a passport – to reduce the massive delays, but it takes up to a year for each of them to receive a security clearance and complete the necessary training. And only now are new adjudicators being hired.

Meanwhile, congressional offices across the land are being flooded with phone calls from outraged citizens. They wonder if their passports have fallen into a black hole. In my district office alone, we have helped hundreds of people who were about to see months of careful planning go down the drain because they simply could not get their hands on an American passport. We have had to intervene, and we did so willingly, because the public’s phone calls to regional passport bureaus and to Consular Affairs have gone unanswered on tens of thousands of occasions.

So today I urge the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to fix the system – and soon. Bring new workers online now, and don’t put into place the passport requirement for land and sea travelers until the processing situation is fully under control.

The State Department says the delay to receive a passport will be down to eight weeks by the end of September, and six weeks by the end of the year. I don’t believe it. Based on my discussions in San Francisco, the wave of passport applications has not even begun to crest. Every objective observer seems to think the State Department’s projections are wildly unrealistic.

Perhaps Ambassador Harty can offer us some reason to be more sanguine for the sake of the millions of Americans who want or need to travel abroad. Endless delays in exercising every citizen’s right to a passport are outrageous and unacceptable.