Department of Homeland Security Blinks, Extensions Given
A REAL ID showdown has been averted for now and driver licenses from all 50 states will be accepted on May 11th (the implementation date in the REAL ID Act). All four of the holdout States that refused to apply for an extension to REAL ID compliance were given extensions anyway. The Department of Homeland Security gave these extensions despite earlier declarations that only states that commit to implementing the REAL ID Act would get them. Anti-REAL ID advocates view this as further evidence that DHS is struggling to maintain support for REAL ID and that DHS has blinked.
The four states that got the unasked-for extensions are Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Each of the states had sent letters to DHS making explicit their refusal to comply with REAL ID. California, though it had applied for an extension, also sent a letter making clear that their extension request should not be viewed as a commitment to REAL ID.
Montana was given an unasked-for extension first, about two weeks before the March 31st application deadline. Montana sent DHS a letter asking that Montana not be penalized, still not requesting an extension. DHS chose to interpret the letter as a request for an extension anyway. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer said, "I sent them a horse and if they want to call it a zebra, that's up to them." He also said, "They can call it whatever they want, and it wasn't a love letter."
New Hampshire became the second state to get an unasked-for extension after sending a letter similar to Montana’s. An earlier letter from New Hampshire was rejected by DHS, but at that time DHS was still adhering to its tough stance demanding a commitment to compliance.
DHS demonstrated further softening by giving a last-minute extension to South Carolina, even though the state sent a defiant letter rejecting REAL ID. Maine's extension came two days after the March 31st application deadline, and after DHS issued an ultimatum and a rejection of Maine's first letter, also defiant. Maine's governor agreed to propose legislation requiring proof of citizenship for driver licenses in a second letter, which DHS found sufficient to grant the extension.
An article in yesterday’s Washington Post said that the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff for “pressuring reluctant states to adopt new federally approved driver's licenses,” with Senator Leahy going so far as to describe it as "bullying."
Now that the May 11th compliance deadline is a moot point (since all 50 states have been granted extensions), the next major deadline is December 31, 2009. By that date, states are supposed to have come into material compliance with REAL ID.