The REAL ID Act of 2005: Legal, Regulatory, and Implementation Issues

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

In 2005, Congress addressed the issue of national standards for drivers’ licenses and personal identification cards by passing The REAL ID Act of 2005 (REAL ID). The act contains a number of provisions relating to improved security for drivers’ licenses and personal identification cards, as well as instructions for states that do not comply with its provisions. In general, while REAL ID does not directly impose federal standards with respect to states’ issuance of drivers’ licenses and personal identification cards, states nevertheless appear compelled to adopt such standards and modify any conflicting laws or regulations to continue to have such documents recognized by federal agencies for official purposes.

Both at the time that REAL ID was debated in Congress, and during the regulatory comment period, questions about the constitutionality of the statute have been raised. There have been four main constitutional arguments made against REAL ID. First, because REAL ID cannot be premised on Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, it is a violation of states’ rights as protected by the Tenth Amendment. Second, the requirement that REAL IDs be used to board federally regulated aircraft impermissibly encroaches on citizens’ right to travel. Third, specific requirements such as the digital photograph potentially violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Finally, REAL ID infringes upon a citizen’s right under the First Amendment to freely assemble, associate, and petition the government.

Since its adoption in 2005, REAL ID has been a highly contested issue among state legislatures and governors. According to some advocacy groups, state and federal elected officials — including numerous commentators to the proposed regulations — and other interested parties, REAL ID imposes an unconstitutional “unfunded mandate” on the states. Prior to the publication of the proposed rule in 2007, however, there was little activity at the state-lawmaking level, primarily because officials were uncertain as to precisely what the implementation requirements were going to necessitate, either in terms of cost or potential changes to state law. Since the publication of the proposed rule in 2007, there has been a dramatic increase in state responses to REAL ID and its requirements. The final regulations were promulgated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on January 29, 2008, and contain 280 pages of explanation as well as responses to over 21,000 comments. This report contains a summary description and analysis of several of the major elements of the REAL ID regulations.

Finally, this report will address REAL ID in relationship to other federal laws and identification programs. This report will be updated as events warrant.

Full report (PDF; 209 KB)

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