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Passport Backlog Reduction Act

On July 16, 2007, the House passed amendments to the Passport Backlog Reduction Act, S. 966, which will help eliminate the enormous passport backlog that is plaguing American travelers. New passport requirements have led to a passport backlog - with currently about 3 million passport applications pending that have not been processed. This delay has forced Americans to cancel business, study and vacation trips abroad. This bill was signed into law by the President on July 30, 2007.

Beginning in January 2007, new passport requirements went into effect.  In December 2004, the Congress enacted the Intelligence Reform Act (or “9/11 Act”).  This legislation included a provision that required the Homeland Security and State Departments to develop a plan - known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) - under which Americans would be required to show passports when traveling from certain Western Hemisphere countries that were previously exempted from such requirements.  The first phase of the WHTI plan took effect earlier this year for air travel from the affected countries, including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and other Caribbean countries.

Although the State Department had known about the new requirements since 2004, they were unprepared.  The State Department had known about the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative since 2004 - and yet it did not take the steps necessary to be prepared for the predictable increase in passport applications beginning in January 2007.
 
Predictably, due to the new requirements, the demand for passports has grown rapidly.  The new passport requirements for air travel have led to an increased demand for passports from the State Department.  In the first seven months of Fiscal Year 2007, there was a 33 percent increase in applications over the same period in Fiscal Year 2006.  Indeed, according to State Department figures, as many as one million passport applications have been filed a month since January. 

Because the State Department was unprepared, an enormous passport backlog has developed - requiring millions of Americans to wait months on end for a passport.  Americans are now being told that the average time for processing a passport is between two-and-a-half to three months - which is unacceptable.  Furthermore, according to the State Department's own figures, 3 million passport applications are currently pending - meaning hundreds of thousands of Americans are having to postpone plans to conduct business overseas, begin a study-abroad program, visit overseas relatives, or take a vacation.

This bill is designed to eliminate the passport backlog by lifting restrictions on the State Department hiring back retired personnel who are trained passport processors.  This bill, as passed by the House, permits the State Department to waive certain restrictions on the reemployment of retired foreign service officers who are trained and authorized to process passport applications in order to allow the department to recruit and hire such officers to help meet the demand for passports, including providing assistance in the investigation of fraud in the connection with an application.  (The Senate-passed version did not include the provisions relating to investigating fraud.)  Under current law, when such retirees are rehired, they can only work up to six months out of the year, and the amount of money they can earn is limited; otherwise, their retirement benefits may be reduced.  Under this bill, by allowing the department to waive these restrictions, retirees can work for a full year and continue to receive their retirement benefits.  Allowing the department to hire back experienced staff will help the department expedite passport processing and eliminate the backlog.  

The bill sunsets the waiver authority.  The House-passed bill terminates the waiver authority for officers detailed to processing and investigating fraud in passport applications on September 30, 2009.  (The Senate-passed bill had terminated the waiver authority on September 30, 2010.)