by Jim Harper, for the CATO Institute

It’s appropriations season! – that wonderful time of year when the House and Senate pass competing versions of legislation to fund government agencies, bureaus, and…whatever pork and pet projects they can squeeze in.

Congress has made most of its spending decisions over the past few years through last-minute continuing resolutions or consolidated appropriations bills. That makes it harder to follow the money (which may be part of the reason they’ve been doing it that way), but it’s important to watch the dollars because some of that money is going toward national ID systems and biometrics.

Last week the House passed their FY 2014 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. As in years past, the legislation contains funding for three of everyone’s favorite identification programs: REAL ID, E-Verify, and US-VISIT/the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), a DHS office covering biometrics for travelers at airports, ports, and other points of entry.

For the coming fiscal year, the House appropriated $114 million for E-Verify, $232 million for OBIM, and $1.2 billion for the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP), from which grants for REAL ID implementation get doled out to states.

These numbers are consistent with past levels of appropriations for these programs, with the exception of REAL ID, which had its own funding stream until it was folded into SHSGP in fiscal 2012.

Year SHSGP REAL ID specific funds E-Verify US-VISIT/OBIM
2013 $968 million $111.9 million $232 million
2012 $830 million $102 million $306 million
2011 $1.29 billion $45 million $103 million $334 million
2010   $950 million $50 million $137 million $373 million
2009 $950 million $50 million $100 million $300 million
2008 $950 million $50 million $60 million $475 million

The numbers show that funding levels for these programs have been fairly consistent and within a set range for the past few years, regardless of which party controlled the presidency or either house of Congress. National ID/biometric spending generally flies under the radar. E-Verify’s funding levels have risen as the program’s usage has expanded. Indifferent to the fact that E-Verify requires a national ID, Congress will probably continue to fund it handsomely going forward.

US-VISIT/OBIM’s funding levels have fluctuated, but spikes in funding have tended to coincide with DHS and Congress pushing new aspects of the program: it received $373 million for FY2010 versus $300 million for the previous year due to an additional $50 million for developing a biometric exit system at airports.

REAL ID’s numbers are the hardest to track due to the end of direct funding in 2011, but the government has awarded at least $175 million to states for implementation of the national ID law since 2008.

These programs aren’t cheap, with billions spent over the past decade to develop national ID standards and build these systems. A national ID and Kafkaesque work eligibility programsare terrible for our privacy and constitutional rights, and they’re not great for our wallets either. As I said last appropriations season, Congress could save money and enhance liberty if it defunded REAL ID.

Congress Spends Your Tax Dollars on a National ID (Cato Institute) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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