Passport backlog sends wave of angry constituent calls to Senate, sparking search for solution
The deepening backlog of passport applications has spurred a flood of calls to Senate offices and new efforts to ease the process for Americans to get the documents they need for overseas travel.
Wait times for Americans who have applied for new or renewed passports have jumped multiple times this year. Applicants are currently waiting 10 to 13 weeks to receive their new passports unless they pay extra for an expedited process of 7 to 9 weeks.
A perfect storm of events — including the slowdown of passport renewal requests during the COVID-19 pandemic and a subsequent rush for Americans to travel internationally — created a serious backlog at the State Department.
The backlog has created headaches for Senate offices across the country as constituents plea for help. Some offices told The Hill that they have seen roughly a fivefold increase in passport cases from 2022 to this year.
Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) have introduced legislation that would help stem the ongoing delays. They have proposed a 12-week processing time requirement for State Department workers and a tracking system so applicants can see how their application is coming along.
Those items were included in a package that will be tucked into the annual National Defense Authorization Act. In the meantime, constituent services staffers remain besieged with cries of help from individuals in their states and districts.
“It is a very big mess,” Lankford told The Hill in a brief interview.
Lankford’s office used to have 35 to 50 active passport cases per week pre-backlog, but that the number has risen to between 150 and 200 these days.
“That’s just people coming to us panicked,” Lankford said. “These are folks saying that they requested their passport in February or January — it’s July. They don’t have it yet.”
Lankford’s office also noted that individuals from outside of Oklahoma have reached out for their help after seeing his work on the issue, but his staff has told them that they must go through their own Senate or congressional office for help.
A number of Senate offices also noted the uptick and how it has increased the case work by constituent services staffers.
Sen. Bob Casey’s (D-Pa.) office told The Hill that it has opened roughly 1,400 passport cases this year compared to only 300 such cases at the same time last year. Those 1,400 cases also represent 15 percent of the office’s constituent inquiries for the year to date, with only immigration cases accounting for a higher total.
A spokesperson for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that his office’s constituent services staff had about 12 passport cases for the month of January. Now they are receiving about 12 passport cases per day.
Finally, Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) office has opened nearly 1,600 passport cases since the start of the year and are projected to handle nearly 3,200 such cases. The total for all of 2022 was 701 cases, with the office handling less than 1,000 in total between 2009 and 2020.
The State Department has said it expects to process 25 million passport applications overall this year, up from 22 million last year. The pre-pandemic processing time was between 4 and 6 weeks.
“It’s been the No. 1 office coming to our office,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who represents Miami International Airport, one of the busiest U.S. airports for international travel.
“I get it — a lot of people didn’t travel during COVID, their passports expired, now they realize it and they’re trying to get on it, but it’s been incredibly disruptive.”
Rubio added that he’s been hearing a lot from both the airlines and the cruise industry about the issue.
Some lawmakers believe one of the factors behind the backlog is that many Americans are unaware that many counties will not allow someone to travel there if their passport expires in less than six months.
“We’ve got people who’ve spent $20,000 to [take] their dream trip, but they didn’t check their passport,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). He added that he is hoping to work with airlines to make travelers more aware of passport expiration issues.
Airlines for America, a top trade association and lobbying group for the airline industry, has urged travelers to check their passports and hailed the work by lawmakers.
Tillis also lauded the Lankford-Ricketts bill, saying that they are “trying to make the plumbing more efficient” with their efforts.
Some Democrats are, however, taking issue GOP senators criticizing the State Department’s handling of applications and the increasing backlog. Menendez argued that no one could have “reasonably foreseen the degree of the explosion” of international travel this year.
“You never know how many people are going to travel. The demand just far exceeded the Department’s capacity,” Menendez said.
Some senators are also dealing with truly bizzare requests for passport help.
Sen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) staff helped Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum receive a new passport after his dog ate his it — twice.
“His dog just finds that passport and just kind of gums it to death,” Thune said while laughing about Thum’s predicament. “And then trying to get another one takes forever.”
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