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Originally published Wednesday, August 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

The known unknowns of a national ID card

I don't fear ID cards. I need one, because I need to prove who I am. I want to be able to pass checks and board airplanes. I note, though, that...

I don't fear ID cards. I need one, because I need to prove who I am. I want to be able to pass checks and board airplanes. I note, though, that more people are demanding to see my ID, and sometimes on thin reasons. I am over 50, and last week was carded for a six-pack of beer.

A new federal law now orders every state to create a standard system for driver's licenses. If Washington is not ready by May 11, 2008, your license won't get you on an airline flight or perhaps (they're not sure yet) allow you to open a federally insured bank account.

At last week's convention of the National Conference of State Legislators I learned that the politician to thank for this is a big-government Republican named Jim Sensenbrenner. The Wisconsin congressman ran his REAL ID Act through Congress by attaching it to the tsunami-relief bill. In May, it was signed by our big-government president, supposedly as a response to the 9/11 attacks — except that none of the 9/11 attackers had used fake IDs.

Well, the law is passed, and we forget the reasons.

How it will work is not entirely clear, because the Department of Homeland Security has not issued regulations. The law does say you will have to submit documents with your photo, birth date, address and Social Security number. State employees will scan and verify them. They will keep your photo, signature, birthdate, address and record of traffic tickets and license suspensions in an electronic database available to employees of all other states.

"This is an important cultural moment," said Tim Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This is the first true national ID card."

Is it constitutional? Sparapani said it appears to violate the Tenth Amendment, which says that the federal government may do only those things the Constitution specifically allows. But a vast acreage of the federal government violates the Tenth Amendment. I wish the ACLU luck but hold out little hope.

The new system will not be free. Larry Dzieza, budget director of the Department of Licensing, said the federal law will require Washington to hire 500 new employees, some to keep the lines from getting too long and most to verify records. He estimates that the fee, now $25, will have to rise to $58 for one's first REAL ID.

In a reference to the uncertainty, the National Conference of State Legislators posted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famous statement about "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns." Part of the cost may be determined by unknown unknowns, Dzieza said, meaning questions officials haven't thought of.

The audience, which was mostly legislators, had questions. One asked: How about kids too young to drive? How will they get on airplanes? Another asked: Will my military ID still be good? The man from Homeland Security had no answer.

A white-haired Republican from South Dakota, who was wearing a vest speckled with campaign buttons, reacted to the statement that foreign birth certificates will not be acceptable documents. "I've got three children who don't have U.S. birth certificates," he said. "Two were born in Germany and one in the Panama Canal Zone, a government that's no longer there. How in hell do we get all this done?"

The man from Homeland Security said the federal government believes it will be possible for every person to get this done.

"Is that a known unknown?" the South Dakotan said. "Or an unknown unknown?"

After May 2008, Washington plans to continue issuing old-fashioned driver's licenses, probably at the old price, to those who want them. But this second-class license will look different than the new one and will say, Not for purposes of identification. You'll be free to drive with it, but don't be too sure about much else.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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