‘The Sensenbrenner Tax’ abandons true conservatism

    Last year, Wisconsin legislators raised the driver’s license fee by $10 to pay for state compliance with Real ID, the national ID law authored by Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner. The fee, which raised Wisconsin taxes by $22 million, will now be used to balance the Wisconsin state budget.

    Now Congressman Sensenbrenner is mad. He calls the deal, negotiated by Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston), a "breach of faith with the people of Wisconsin" and a "fiscal shell game."

    This turn of events leaves many Wisconsin conservatives scratching their heads in wonder: Congressman Sensenbrenner purports to be a foe of big government.  So why is he complaining that Wisconsin legislators aren’t spending his tax increase the way he wants them to?

    On May 11, Wisconsin and the nation’s other states reached the implementation deadline for Real ID, the national identification card program authored by Sensenbrenner, the Fifth District’s 30-year
    incumbent congressman. After a lengthy staring match with the states, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blinked, effectively granting the states until 2011, perhaps even 2018, to comply. But the conflict isn’t over.

    Real ID was born in controversy when Sensenbrenner attached the bill as a "rider" to a 2005 military appropriation bill (a rider is a provision that shares little in common with the original bill – and is favorite technique legislators use for dropping earmarks into unrelated bills). Worse yet, Real ID was voted on in the US Senate without an opportunity for a single hearing or debate. 

    Many conservatives, already bristling at the GOP’s irresponsible spending habits and expansion of government by 2005, soon revolted. The Wall Street Journal accused Sensenbrenner and the Republican leadership of betraying its "federalist principles" yet again. Real ID, as described by the Journal, effectively requires all 245 million license holders in the US to "head down to the local Department of Motor Vehicles with certified source documents – such as a birth certificate or Social Security card – to apply for the new standardized national ID. And people from states that don’t play ball won’t be able to use their licenses to board planes or enter federal buildings."

    In effect, Real ID is an internal passport for American citizens with a mandate to build, according to the Cato Institute, a "federal surveillance infrastructure" to track "every American, native-born and immigrant
    alike." The Journal evoked images of totalitarian Germany, calling it the "show-us-your-papers Sensenbrenner approach" to internal security.

    Since 2005, the rationale for Real ID has mutated as its proponents struggle to overcome bipartisan opposition.  Initially it was an antiterrorism bill.

    It then became a technique to control illegal immigration.  Then it was about preventing identity theft.  Most recently a top DHS official suggested the ID could be used to control access to cold medications.

    Reasons enough to oppose its implementation.

    The lesson of DHS’s call for an ID to control access to cold medicine, warns Cato’s Jim Harper, is this: "Once a national ID system is in place, the federal government will use it for tighter and tighter control of every American."

    With Real ID, Jim Sensenbrenner has managed to unite left and right in opposition. Groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Gun Owners of America oppose Real ID. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) warned Americans that a national ID system might soon be used to monitor your "credit history, your residential information, your banking history, your medical and mental health records, your marital status, your ATM withdrawals, turnpike use,
    library checkouts, movie rentals, pharmacy prescriptions, phone call records, and firearms by serial number and address. Imagine all that information encrypted in a hologram on your national ID card … but a hologram you can’t read. Only higher authorities can read it."

    "Never accept the idea," he concluded, "that surrendering freedom – any freedom – is the price of feeling safe."

    Nineteen state legislatures have passed bills refusing to comply with Real ID, while Republicans in Congress work for its repeal. South Carolina’s Republican governor, Mark Sanford, considered suing the federal government over the unconstitutionality of Real ID. Senate Republicans John Sununu and
    Lamar Alexander are working actively to roll it back.

    Their complaint?  Sensenbrenner’s bill violates the GOP’s commitment to federalism, or states’ rights.  Conservatives have long complained about the abuse of "unfunded mandates" by the federal government. Real ID is among the most abusive unfunded mandates in recent history:  Sensenbrenner’s bill appropriated between $40 and $60 million in federal funds, while estimates of the total cost passed on to the states range from $4 billion to over $20 billion.[8]  With unfunded mandates like the Sensenbrenner Tax, federal legislators are able to hide the real cost of government by making the
    states raise taxes for them.

    It is, to use Sensenbrenner’s own words, a "fiscal shell game" – the tax increase he secretly passed along to Wisconsin taxpayers a "breach of faith with the people of Wisconsin."

    Proponents of Real ID suggest concerns over abuse of the system are unwarranted.  But Americans were once promised that Social Security numbers would not be used for identification purposes.  Now, Social Security numbers are used for drivers licenses, patient and credit records, and by employers. Moreover, Real ID’s national database increases the likelihood of identity theft. 

    There are viable alternatives.  For those who would use Sensenbrenner’s national ID to combat illegal immigration, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis) introduced in February an employment verification system to provide a "tested and effective way to immediately authenticate an employee’s legal status." Ryan touts his proposal as an effective alternative to the "new ‘big brother’, one-size-fits-all federal
    government database and national I.D. card."

    Wisconsin voters should be angry enough that under Republicans the government grew by almost fifty percent between 2001 and 2007. Now the same leaders who gave us $3 trillion in new debt and a massive expansion of Medicare are working hard to give us more unfunded government, this time at
    the expense of our privacy.

    Next time you complain about Wisconsin’s high tax rates, remember the Sensenbrenner Tax. It’s one of many reasons Real ID needs to be repealed.

    Jim Burkee, an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin, is challenging Jim Sensenbrenner in the September 9 primary for Wisconsin’s Fifth Congressional District seat.

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