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Eliot Spitzer: From Steamroller to Steamrolled

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October 29, 2007

When Eliot Spitzer was inaugurated as Governor of New York in January, he vowed to transform the culture of Albany where, notoriously, state policy decisions are made by “three men in a room.”

Two men in a room.

The former Attorney General, who had earned a reputation for being willing to take on powerful white-collar criminals, dubbed himself “the Steamroller,” promising to do the right thing for New Yorkers even in the face of the worst political heat. Less than a year later, Spitzer has taken a position that reflects the worst kind of political cowardice, one that sells out the privacy rights of New Yorkers to appease the Bush Administration.

In a hastily scheduled press conference on Saturday morning, Spitzer stood side-by-side with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and announced that New York would comply with the federal Real ID Act, a 2005 law that would create the first true national ID card in the U.S., as well as a massive database of personal information on Americans, exposing us all to increased government tracking and identity theft. I’ve written about Real ID here before, so I won’t list all the problems with the Act (they are detailed on our website, But over and above the dangers it poses to civil liberties and the massive cost – $23 billion nationwide according to the Department of Homeland Security – Spitzer’s endorsement of Real ID is a shocking example of poor governance and the very backdoor dealings he promised to root out of his home state.

First of all, the Real ID Act was passed attached to an emergency military spending and Tsunami relief bill. It received no hearings and no debate in the full Congress. The states, and the American people, were given no say in having to endure its burdensome requirements. Second, the Department of Homeland Security has failed repeatedly to issue guidelines for implementation of the Act. These final regulations were originally due in September, then October, now we hear they won’t be ready for two or three more months. So even if a state wanted to implement Real ID, no one knows how to do that yet. It doesn’t take a political scientist to tell you that jumping headlong into implementing a hugely expensive and complicated law without any formal regulations is a bad idea.

Finally, Spitzer is acting alone and against the wisdom of the majority of states and policymakers. The national mood toward this boondoggle of a law was reflected in not one, but two bipartisan votes in the U.S. Senate last summer against expanding and funding Real ID. Seventeen legislatures last year passed bills or resolutions opposing Real ID and calling on Congress to repeal the law. Seven of those states passed binding statutes to opt out of the program altogether. If the elected bodies across the country are so unified, what moved Spitzer to go the other way? Does he know something a majority of US. Senators don’t? As the Associated Press reported today, Spitzer’s decisions came after several “collegial conversations” with his “old friend” Chertoff. The three men in a room have shrunk to two.

Spitzer may now have temporarily resuscitated Real ID, which was crumbling under opposition from far braver public officials. When a supposedly independent, tough, Democratic Governor stands side-by-side with the head of the agency that brought us the federal government’s response to Katrina, and endorses a half-baked security proposal from the Administration that gave us the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and torture, one has to wonder, who’s steamrolling whom?

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