Lawmakers criticized a senior State Department official for failing to anticipate a surge in demand for passports that has led to long delays for hundreds of thousands of Americans trying to travel abroad.
"The U.S. passport system is broken, and Americans are paying a painful price," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday.
"Every citizen of our nation has the right to hold a passport. But millions of Americans ... have been reduced to begging and pleading, waiting for months on end, simply for the right to travel abroad."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the committee's top Republican, called the delays "outrageous, incomprehensible, unconscionable."
Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, who is in charge of consular affairs, said she accepted responsibility for the problems.
"We failed to predict the record-setting compressed demand that began in January," she said.
Lantos had summoned Harty to explain why Americans were having to wait 10 to 12 weeks or more — nearly double the normal time — to receive their passports.
He and other panel members said they had been inundated with phone calls from citizens asking for help in getting their passports before their flights departed.
"We are here today to see that this national embarrassment gets fixed — and fixed fast," Lantos said. "This is not brain surgery."
Lawmakers from both parties criticized the government's failure to predict the surge in applications after a 2004 law that requires U.S. citizens flying to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean to carry passports.
It went into effect in January, but the rules requiring a passport in hand for air travelers have been relaxed until Sept. 30. Travelers must prove only that they have applied and must have other documentation, such as a birth certificate, that the host country requires. They also will need a government-issued photo ID to return to the U.S.
As a result of the new rules, nearly 18 million citizens are expected to request a passport this year, up from 12.1 million in 2006.
The State Department last week said it had a backlog of about 500,000 applications that have been in the system 10 weeks or more.
Colin Walle, president of National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, which represents passport adjudicators, said the backlog of all applications had dropped to 2.88 million as of July 4. On June 13, that number was 2.95 million, Walle said.
To deal with the backlog, the State Department has asked diplomats abroad to come home to help out and also has ordered about 200 recent hires to spend two months processing applications.
Harty said the department had underestimated how many Americans would apply for passports once the 2004 law, part of a series of changes to boost security after the Sept. 11 attacks, went into effect.
The department had projected about 16.2 million passport applications this year and was hit hard by about 5.5 million just in the first three months of 2007.
One reason for the higher-than-expected increase was that many people have been applying for passports even though they have no imminent travel plans.
"We have people who are deciding they need a passport ... people who perceive they need to prove they're citizens," Harty said. "I think for many the passport is becoming something of a national identification card."
Los Angeles Times staff members Jane Engle and Catharine Hamm contributed to this report.