Image: Passport Services
Paul J. Richards  /  AFP - Getty Images
A government official with the State Department's Passport Services reaches for an active passport case in the application storage room earlier this month in Washington, D.C.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/20/2007 6:54:38 PM ET 2007-06-20T22:54:38
OPINION

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have been caught up in the ongoing nuttiness over passport applications, I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news? Congress has just voted to delay the rule requiring U.S. citizens to have passports for land and sea crossings to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean until June 2009.

The bad news? Congress has just voted to delay the rule requiring U.S. citizens to have passports for land and sea crossings to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean until June 2009.

Is that contradictory? Probably. Illogical? Absolutely. Then again, between the original rules, several recently relaxed rules and the latest maybe-they’ll-be-relaxed-maybe-they-won’t-be rules, I’m not sure logic has played much of a role in the whole crazy process.

A bit of background
The government expects to process 17 million passports this year, a 40-percent increase over last year. That includes millions of applications mandated by new regulations implemented in January requiring all U.S. citizens to have passports when flying to or from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the non-U.S. Caribbean.

The result has been chaos for countless would-be travelers who have seen their applications delayed for three months or more. In the last week alone, I’ve heard from people who have made hundreds of phone calls, driven hours to the nearest passport agency and contacted every government official they could find. “I even talked to someone in Condoleezza Rice’s office,” one told me.

In fact, the backlog got so bad that the Bush administration said it will postpone rules , at least for six months, that travelers present passports when crossing the U.S. border by land or sea. (Go herefor details and restrictions.) Two weeks ago, the government temporarily waived the rule for those who can prove they’ve applied for a passport.  A week later, they approved refunds for those who paid for expedited service but didn’t get it .

I’m sure the people in the trenches are processing applications as fast as they can, but clearly, somebody didn’t think this through. And despite last week’s vote to delay the January 2008 deadline for land and sea travelers, there’s still trouble brewing on the horizon.

Absolutely committed — or just certifiable?
That’s because the Department of Homeland Security says it remains “absolutely committed” to the January deadline. The president has also stated he’ll veto the legislation that contains the delay proposal. If that happens, look for even more applications. According to government statistics, land crossings alone will likely require another 27 million Americans to go through the process over the next five years.

Then there’s the ongoing uncertainty over the development of the passport card, or PASS card, the wallet-sized alternative to the little blue book. (As proposed, the cards are expected to cost $20, plus a $25 application fee.) The State Department doesn’t expect to start issuing them until spring 2008, prompting some members of Congress to question not just the January deadline, but also whether DHS is absolutely committed or completely certifiable.

Look for an answer to that question later this month when DHS announces how it intends to implement its plan.

Planning for change
Personally, I’m guessing they’ll propose even more changes. And that’s been the problem throughout this entire cockamamie process. Consider:

  • As originally passed, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) mandated that all U.S. citizens would need a passport for the aforementioned destinations as of January 8, 2007 (subsequently pushed back to January 23).
  • Then, in October 2006, it was announced that the pending rule would apply only to air travelers, giving those traveling by land or sea a reprieve until January 2008 ... or June 2009 ... or some time in between.
  • In March 2007, it was announced that children ages 15 and younger traveling by land or sea wouldn’t need passports after all (although they’ll still need them for air travel).
  • Now the government has waived the air-travel rule for those who have applied for a passport but not received it in time for their trip. Of course, the rule is temporary (through the end of September); it only applies to those with pending applications; and it does nothing for those heading to destinations outside the WHTI mandate.

Enough with the fiddling and flip-flopping. Just come up with a comprehensive policy; allocate the necessary resources so it can be implemented in the timeframe proposed; and stick with it. Simply put, everyone who travels out of the country is eventually going to need a passport (or PASS card), so let’s make that the rule and get on with it.

Perhaps the latest proposal will accomplish that, but recent history suggests there will be more delays, more changes and more confusion to come.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of applying for a passport, but haven’t yet, I suggest you follow the advice of a correspondent who recently left the National Passport Information Center:

1) Apply six months before you plan to travel or pay for expedited service.

2) Don’t purchase tickets for a trip that requires passports until you have them in hand.

3) Pray.

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