House backs bill to boost hiring for passport processing

The House on Monday approved legislation that would enable the State Department to bring in extra help to process passport applications.

The bill (S. 966), which the Senate passed late last month, would allow State to rehire retired Foreign Service employees to staff overwhelmed passport processing centers across the country.

Demand for passports increased significantly at the beginning of this year, when travelers were required to comply with a 2004 law mandating passports for all U.S. citizens traveling by air within the Western Hemisphere. That requirement has been suspended to allow citizens with pending passport applications to travel until Sept. 30 with proof that they've applied.

Currently, the department is receiving more than 1 million passport applications a month and holds a backlog of about 500,000 that have been pending more than 10 weeks, instead of the usual six to eight, said Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman.

The House legislation would grant State the flexibility to rehire retired and fully trained passport processors on a temporary basis to help existing processors manage the increased demand.

Retirees now have little incentive to return because current law cuts their salaries by the amount of their pensions. While the department has some authority to waive such rules, that authority is limited to personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bill sponsor Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement that the current bottleneck is affecting all stages of passport processing, from the initial scanning of an application to the adjudication of citizenship. Call centers to assist people in New York City and across the country are overwhelmed with passport processing questions but do not have the staff to address the calls, Schumer said.

"The passport system is on the path toward a mass meltdown as processing delays have pushed the average wait time to two and a half months," Schumer said. "By pulling these Foreign Service members off the bench, the State Department will gain additional manpower that could well be the key to breaking this passport logjam."

State has tried lengthening work hours and requiring overtime, but has said it still lacks qualified personnel who have undergone the background checks necessary to handle sensitive passport adjudications. Currently, it takes the department between three months and a year to vet and train a new passport adjudicator, leaving the agency with little flexibility to handle surges in demand.

Vasquez said that the legislation would help a great deal, but meanwhile, the department has rolled out plans to return the time to six weeks by the end of this year. It plans to do this through an adjudication training program for Presidential Management Fellows and recent college graduates, who, after training, will move to one of the two busiest passport agencies in the country -- the Portsmouth, N.H., and New Orleans offices. The sole focus of these employees will be to address the backlog, Vasquez said.

Vasquez added that through the training program, State plans to reduce the backlog and processing time to eight weeks by the end of September, and reach the six week goal by the end of the year.

He said, however, that the new legislation could help the department address the problem faster. "We welcome any such move by the Congress that will assist us in correcting the situation with the passports," he said.

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