HSNW conversation with Jena Baker McNeilREAL ID "absolutely necessary," says policy expert

Published 27 July 2011

Homeland Security NewsWire’s executive editor Eugene Chow recently caught up with Jena Baker McNeil, a senior policy analyst specializing in homeland security at the Heritage Foundation; McNeil discusses why the REAL ID program is necessary, the state of implementation, and why it is not an unfunded mandate as some critics claim [editor’s note: today, 27 July, is McNeil’s last day at the Heritage Foundation; she is leaving Heritage to work on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, for Ranking Member Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)]

Homeland Security NewsWire: Given the federal requirements and the structure of the REAL ID program – a federal law that establishes stringent standards and issuance procedures for state driver’s licenses – would you consider it an unfunded mandate?

Jena Baker McNeill: REAL ID is not an unfunded mandate. States have been allocated $176 million in grant funding for REAL ID implementation. Some of this money has been left unspent. REAL implementation has been cheaper than previously estimated. It was originally estimated to cost $11 billion for all the states, now CBO (Congressional Budget Office) is estimating it to cost around $3 billion.


The issue of implementation has been because the federal government has sent mixed messages about whether it is serious about implementation. I fully support Congress supporting state efforts by appropriating more funding as needed and rewarding those who move forward with benchmarks, but I do not think that is the issue with REAL ID implementation. Furthermore, many states are beginning to see the money they can save by make their driver’s license secure in terms of combating fraud and identity theft.

HSNW: The Department of Homeland Security insists that REAL ID is not a national ID instead it only imposes federal standards for IDs but leaves the operation and maintenance of databases in the hands of states. Despite these claims, would you consider REAL ID to constitute a national ID?

JBM: I agree with DHS. There is not a single database created to serve REAL ID. It simply directs states to network their own databases together so that they can talk to one another and try to identify fraud. No one in the federal government will be able to access any information—meaning there is nothing “national” about the process.

HSNW: With states heavily opposed to REAL ID and the many delays to the implementation of the program, in your opinion what would be a better alternative to REAL ID? In addition, is this program even necessary?

JBM: I disagree that states are heavily opposed to REAL ID. The rhetoric in Washington has focused on that and there have been some states very vocal about it, but the reality on the ground is that states are moving forward. A great piece that helps to talk about this is Janice Kephart’s paper at the Center for Immigration Studies.

p>For instance, as Janice emphasizes, “this year, for the first time ever, all states are checking Social Security numbers upon application for a driver’s license or non-driver ID.” Also twenty-one states (and seven more to come) have digitized their birth records, while eleven states are already REAL ID compliant. These are huge security gains. States are beginning to understand why this makes sense. If Washington would get in the game I am fully confident that states would begin to sail forward even faster than they already are on implementation.


This program is absolutely necessary. I think REAL ID is the right path forward in terms of secure credentialing. Before this bill was passed, the security of driver’s license was horrendous and a huge security and identity theft loophole that terrorists and criminals continue to exploit—it makes sense for us to get serious about this—and I think REAL ID is the right way to do it.