Montana Battles Homeland Security Over National ID Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – In Montana, where individual rights are prized and the federal government is often seen as too big-brother, elected officials have banded together to fight off implementation of a national ID program.

Leading the charge is Gov. Brian Schweitzer, an outspoken Democrat, who has tried unsuccessfully to rally his colleagues across the country to challenge the congressionally approved plan known as Real ID. Just last week, Schweitzer said on a national radio program that no consequences will come from dismissing such a “hare-brained scheme.”

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security disagree, saying Montana faces a “sense of isolationism” if it continues down its path of refusal. They say Montana driver’s licenses won’t be good for air travel or entering federal buildings after May 11 if the state doesn’t take an initial step toward complying with the law.

“If it does come to a head, we’ve found it is best just to tell them to go to hell, and run your state the way you want to run your state,” Schweitzer told National Public Radio.

The Department of Homeland Security has asked states to file for an extension to comply with Real ID requirements. All but four have filed in advance of a March 31 deadline.

Montana has a long history of fighting the federal government over its requirements. For years, the state bucked federal rules on speed limits, drinking and driving, seat belt use, and motorcycle helmets. In those cases, however, their refusal usually meant less federal highway money.

This time, Montana residents could also face extra screening at airports, unless they have a passport to show as identification. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., says he will be the first in line for the extra screening.

“Montanans aren’t scared of Beltway blunders like Real ID and all these little deadlines and threats that come with it,” Tester said. “We expect a commonsense government, not one that wants to bully states and invade our private lives.”

It was privacy concerns that prompted the Legislature last year to pass a law preventing the state from complying with Real ID, billed as the strongest stance by any state in the country. In Montana, where the U.S. Patriot Act is largely despised, lawmakers did not want the federal government collecting data on its citizens.

This week, Tester, and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called the extension deadline “arbitrary and ineffective” in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and said there was no point in penalizing Montana residents. They noted no state will actually implement Real ID this year, and the deadline for full implementation is not until 2017.

“I applaud state officials, including Gov. Schweitzer, for their staunch opposition,” Baucus said.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security was not amused by the senators’ comments.

“Maybe they are suggesting that (we) should no longer ask for ID’s at airports? It’s unlikely that Americans would even fly if that were the case,” said spokesman Russ Knocke. “Their call to backslide when it comes to aviation security — in a world where terrorists are still attracted to airplanes — is what’s really disturbing.”

Tester said he planned to introduce legislation as soon as he can that would prevent Montana residents from facing sanctions over the state’s showdown with the Department of Homeland Security.

Earlier this year, Schweitzer asked 17 governors to stand with him against the March 31 deadline and its “Faustian bargain,” or deal with the devil. He received two replies, both simply acknowledging receipt of the letter.

The other holdouts — South Carolina, Maine and New Hampshire — have been speaking with the Department of Homeland Security and may seek the extension.

Montana’s lone representative in the U.S. House, Republican Denny Rehberg, said it’s time to tone down the “saber rattling.”

“The deadline is looming,” Rehberg said. “The coalition of support the governor has consistently referred to has vaporized.”

Rehberg said he has opposed Real ID since the Montana Legislature made its position clear last year. But he said the state should consider asking for an extension under a specific agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that would not compel future action by the state.

In the meantime, Rehberg said he would work to overturn Real ID provisions disliked by the state.

Schweitzer said he remains confident Montanans will still be able to use their driver’s licenses, implying Homeland Security will back down.

“This is another bluff from some bureaucrats in Washington D.C., and we live a long way from Washington D.C.,” Schweitzer said.