July 24, 2023

Constituents hound Senate offices over unprecedented passport backlog

The Washington Examiner

Thousands of people have been calling Senate offices for assistance getting the necessary documents for overseas travel as the State Department’s passport processing backlog causes unprecedented delays.

The State Department has said it expects to process about 25 million passport applications this year, an increase of 3 million from 2023. A department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner that it was “receiving approximately 400,000 applications each week, following higher-than-normal volumes in January through May 2023 that exceeded 500,000 applications a week.”

Processing time for passport requests before the COVID-19 pandemic was about four to six weeks, while applications are currently taking up to three months for routine processing. Applicants willing to pay $60 for expedited processing can get their passports in seven to nine weeks.

Over a dozen Senate offices tell Washington Examiner that their staffers have been besieged with cases for constituents seeking assistance getting their passport requests processed. The issue is a bipartisan one. House and Senate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken at least ten letters on the matter since March.

On the House side, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA) led a bipartisan letter signed by 190 lawmakers in May to Rita Bitter, the assistant secretary for consular affairs. The letter stated that passport matters were taking up a “disproportionate percentage of our offices’ constituent services caseload.”

The newest letter out of the Senate came on Monday from Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-MO), who sent a similar missive in April that his office says went unanswered. The first-term senator urged Blinken in the second letter to find the resources to hire more staff by cutting programs and initiatives “with little to no benefit to American citizens.”

“If the Department instead allocated the funding for these initiatives to hire more employees to process passport applications, it could hire just shy of 1,000 new passport agents,” the letter reads, referencing four programs Schmitt suggested get the ax that collectively cost over $32 million.

Schmitt’s office has had 510 passport assistance requests this year, his spokesman says. The Missouri senator noted in his April letter that nearly half of his office’s casework since he assumed office in January had been related to passports and other State Department issues.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) wrote to Blinken in March about “his concern and frustration” over the State Department’s Online Passport Renewal system, which “seems to be fraught with significant errors that had caused “headaches, stress, and unfortunately in some instances, delayed or missed travel.”

The Virginia senator went as far as to call the situation a “crisis” at a press conference earlier this month. Warner’s office told the Washington Examiner that it has opened nearly 1,600 passport cases since January and projects it will handle nearly 3,200 by the end of the year. The number is a jump from the 701 cases the office handled in all of 2022.

Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Pete Ricketts (R-NE) introduced legislation that would establish a 12-week passport processing time limit and an online system for applicants to track their progress.

A Ricketts spokesman told the Washington Examiner that their office’s “number of passport-related cases has quadrupled this year,” noting that they have “had to redirect additional casework staff hours to passports from other issues because of the surge of requests.”

Lankford’s office said last week that people from other states had begun reaching out for assistance after seeing his work on the issue, though his staff directed them to their own Senate or congressional offices for help.

The Lankford-Ricketts bill was included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, must-pass legislation that sets Pentagon policy and authorizes $886 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2024. It remains to be seen if the passport bill will be kept in the NDAA as a provision when the final bill is sent to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Blinken said while testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee in March that “with COVID, the bottom basically dropped out of the system,” explaining that the government fired contractors and reassigned staff away from handling passport matters when no one was traveling. He also said that the government halted the Online Passport Renewal system Warner and others complained about in order to “make sure that we can fine-tune it and improve it.”

The secretary said he expected the updated online renewal platform to handle 65% of requests “once this program is fully up and running” and noted that the department was hiring agents as quickly as possible while authorizing thousands of hours in overtime.

A State Department spokesperson echoed much of Blinken’s comments in a lengthy statement to the Washington Examiner on Monday, which acknowledged that the department is “experiencing a surge in passport demand.”

“More Americans have passports than at any time in our history — 46% today versus 30% in 2008. We anticipate that this increased demand for passports will continue,” the spokesperson said.

The statement also pointed to issues with mail issues, noting that “it is important to remember that processing times do not include mailing times. It may take up to two weeks for applications to arrive by mail at a passport agency or center and up to two weeks for customers to receive a completed passport in the mail after we print it.”

A spokesman for Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) said while the office had seen “a steady uptick in cases between February and June,” the senator believes Blinken approving thousands of hours of overtime had proven to be unproductive.

“There are a lot of people at the passport office working overtime to meet our requests, but it’s clear that having people work overtime is not the solution,” Cassidy, who also led a letter to Blinken with Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) in June on the matter, said.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opted against criticizing the State Department’s response to the passport request surge, arguing that no one could have “reasonably foreseen the degree of the explosion” of international travel.

“You never know how many people are going to travel. The demand just far exceeded the Department’s capacity,” Menendez said.

The public, meanwhile, continues to turn in droves to their senators for help as they wait for a federal solution.

Menendez’s office says it is currently fielding about 12 passport cases per day, a sharp rise from its 12 total passport cases in January.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has had nearly 6,000 requests for passport assistance this year, which his office says is double last year’s numbers and a “7,000% increase from pre-COVID levels.” A representative for Scott, Rubio’s Florida colleague, says their office’s number of passport cases has nearly tripled compared to last year.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) noted at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June that his staff has “200 people right now that are working through my office for emergency help. We have four people in our office that are doing nothing besides emergency passport requests.”

“In this day and age, I think it’s unreasonable to expect Americans to think it’s going to take them months to get a passport, particularly a passport renewal,” he said.


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