Politics

Numbers Game

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If you renew your driver's license after 1999, most likely you will find your Social Security number next to your flattering DMV photo. But if you consider this expansive use of the Social Security number a violation of privacy, don't blame your state legislator or the slow-moving DMV employees. Don't even blame federal bureaucrats. The fault lies with Congress, which in 1996 added a provision to an omnibus spending bill requiring states to link Social Security numbers with driver's licenses.

The provision--mandated by that year's immigration bill--is intended to prevent illegal immigrants from securing gainful employment or government assistance. Backers of tougher measures against illegals wanted to make it more difficult to obtain phony IDs and figured that the easiest way to do that was to link driver's licenses, which act as de facto state identity cards, to the federal government's employment and benefit databases. (See "Identity Crisis," December 1997.)

The driver's license would thus become a national ID card. This process came to light in June, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published the following proposed rule in the Federal Register: "After October 1, 2000, driver's licenses or identification documents shall contain a social security number." Even if a license isn't emblazoned with the nine-digit number, the law requires state DMVs to collect and verify each applicant's number with the Social Security Administration.

A diverse coalition ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum lobbied against the regulations. The National Council of State Legislatures accused Congress of overriding states' prerogative to issue whatever types of driver's licenses they prefer. (The NCSL reports that only six states use Social Security numbers as driver's license numbers and that several of those have considered adopting another identifying system.)

Reps. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) have introduced bills that would repeal the authorizing law. But with the end of the legislative session nearing, at press time Barr and Paul recognized that the best chance of stopping the regulations was to amend the appropriations bill that will fund NHTSA next year--the same legislative maneuver that caused the controversy initially.