An apologetic official acknowledged Wednesday that the State Department failed to anticipate the flood of passport applications this year that resulted in long delays and disrupted summer travel plans.
"No one is more aware than I am that in the past several months many travelers who applied for a passport did not receive their document in time for their planned travel. I deeply regret that," Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
She said the department had predicted that passport issuance would rise from 12.1 million last year to 16.2 million this year with the implementation in January of new national security rules requiring those returning by air from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a passport. Instead, applications are expected to be near 18 million this year, and the normal six-week process for getting a passport ballooned to 12 weeks this spring.
"We failed to predict the record-setting compressed demand," Harty said. "I do sincerely regret that we missed the mark on that number."
That failed to fully satisfy some lawmakers, whose offices have been besieged with calls from constituents panicked that they weren't getting the passports they needed for summer trips abroad. Several compared the poor planning — Congress passed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in late 2004 — to the lack of preparedness for Hurricane Katrina.
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., called it a "national embarrassment." Millions of Americans, he said, "have been reduced to begging and pleading, waiting for months on end, simply for the right to travel abroad."
"It's outrageous, incomprehensible, unconscionable," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, top Republican on the panel. She said her office in Florida had been "flooded with calls from frustrated would-be travelers."
Harty listed several "unknowable" factors for the unexpected surge in applications. She said many people mistakenly believed that the passport requirement also applied to land and sea entry even though that phase of the law won't go into effect until 2008 at the earliest.
She also said that many applicants had no immediate travel plans, and appeared to want passports out of a growing sense that, in a climate of concern over terrorist threats, they need proof of citizenship. "The passport is becoming like some form of a national ID card," she said.
She said the State Department has responded to the backlog through such steps as hiring 2,500 new staff in the past three years, ordering young diplomats to help out in clearing the backlog, operating two or three shifts at passport offices, and opening some offices on Saturday for emergency appointments. She said the processing time was now down to about 10 weeks and they were committed to returning it to the six-week waiting period.
Last month the State Department waived the passport rule until the end of September for travelers who could show proof that they had applied for a passport.
Homeland Security Department senior official Paul Rosenzweig, who also testified, said there's been a 98 percent or better compliance rate for affected air travelers since the new passport rules went into effect on Jan. 23.
He said that when the new border document rules, aimed at better monitoring people entering and leaving the country, are fully implemented it will take only 10 to 20 seconds to verify identities. Currently it takes up to 90 seconds to process the 8,000 different kinds of information travelers can use to identify themselves at the border.