(WASHINGTON) — As the State Department faces historic demand for passports, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on Friday renewed his calls for changes in the monthslong renewal process.
The State Department received a record 22 million requests last year and is on track to shatter that mark with an estimated 25 million more this year.
Warner held a news conference outside the Washington, D.C., passport office, one of 29 offices across the U.S., after receiving a tour. The senator commended the federal workers and contractors who work on passports.
But he criticized processing times, flaws in the now-shuttered online renewal pilot system and hourslong waits on the travel emergency phone line.
“We’ve seen these workers, you know, work on Saturdays, work overtime, as we try to get through this enormous challenge,” Warner said. “The flip side is we also know this is a crisis.”
Warner blamed a “perfect storm” of government hiring freezes, drops in renewal fees and lack of travel during the pandemic for the backlog. And he criticized Republicans, who he said cut funding.
Processing estimates for both regular and expedited passports have increased multiple times in the last months, the State Department’s website says. Routine applications now process in an estimated 10 to 13 weeks, while applicants can pay $60 to expedite their application for processing in seven to nine weeks, the website shows.
Warner said he would push the State Department to hire more staff and said he would support an increase in the expedited processing fee to pay for improvements. He emphasized that new hires must include technology specialists who could fix up the State Department’s Online Passport Renewal System.
Piloted from August 2022 to February 2023, the system was shut down after technical bugs frustrated applicants, including Warner’s constituents. Warner wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March, urging him to find a solution to the confusion.
Warner, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, noted that passport production requires security clearances. He admitted that the bulk of the issues, from the online system to the hiring concerns might not be resolved until next year.
The senator said he met applicants including his own constituents and other Washington-area residents, as well as a family that traveled from New York to secure their passports. He said the Washington office had just received the highest number of visitors in its history.
Warner said he was hopeful that the summer rush for passports might recede significantly soon, though he warned a possible strike from a union behind package carrier UPS could be crushing.
“If we have the UPS strike, on August 1, all bets are off,” he said.
Warner said his goal is for people to be able to get passports in one day like they could before the pandemic — without three-hour phone calls on the emergency line or glitchy programs.
Still, he urged travelers to think through their plans right now.
“Don’t book that international trip two weeks from now if you don’t have passports,” Warner said.
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