The State Department has come up with a novel way to meet the increasing demand from its customers for information about applying for a passport. If customers don't want to wait in line at a passport office, they can call the new National Passport Information Center. But they'll pay up to $1.05 a minute for the privilege.

The center can only be reached via a 1-900 telephone number (900-225-5674). With a major credit card, people can call the center at 1-888-362-8688 for a flat fee of $4.95.

That, says Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., is "downright insulting and intolerable." So, he introduced a bill in Congress requiring the State Department to set up a free customer service line for passport information. The Freedom of Passport Information Act of 1997 (H.R. 491) prohibits the State Department from "imposing a charge or fee for providing passport information to the general public."

State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which oversees passport services, started the 1-900 service in November. The bureau awarded AT&T a contract to run the service because passport services simply could not handle the flow of calls requesting information and could not afford to run a customer service hotline itself, a bureau spokesperson said.

"The only way we could do this was self-funding," the spokesperson said. "This level of service would cost additional money from appropriations that we didn't have."

AT&T covered all the costs of setting up the service and operates it on the fees people pay. An 800 service would have cost several million dollars annually to run, the bureau said.

In the last five years the workload at passport services has increased 77 percent. At the same time, a personnel freeze has been in effect. Last year, 5.7 million passports were issued.

"The volume of calls became overwhelming. People simply could not get through, or would be put on hold for 30 minutes," the spokesperson said.

The recorded message at passport offices now directs people to places where passport information can be obtained for free, including clerks of courts and post offices, and then gives the 1-900 number.

AT&T's pay-per-minute service has answered 215,000 calls since November. This year AT&T predicts it will field 2.5 million calls.

Several other agencies have 1-900 services, including the Census Bureau and the Federal Communications Commission, the bureau spokesperson noted.

But Gary Gallant, a Saxton spokesman, said the State Department has an obligation to provide information free of charge. "IRS answers their phone calls," he said. Social Security answers their phone calls. VA answers their phone calls. "They find a way to get it done under current budget restrictions."

State's 1-900 service, he says, is "against what Americans think is fair for the government to do."

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