In the News

Houlahan works to fix 'broken' passport system

Originally Published in the Daily Local.

WASHINGTON D.C. — Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) of Easttown held a bipartisan press conference on Friday addressing the struggles of constituents seeking to obtain new passports this year.

Joining Houlahan on the call was her Congressional peer Rep. French Hill (R-AR) of Little Rock.

Houlahan and French Hill concurred there is a bipartisan effort underway to fix the “broken U.S. passport system.”

Houlahan said she and Hill have heard from hundreds of constituents who are struggling with passport renewals and other passport-related issues due to bureaucratic failures happening at the U.S. National Passport Center.

She said that this situation is not only impacting countless Pennsylvanians but also thousands and thousands of Americans across the nation.

“There’s a massive, massive backlog of passport applications and that’s causing an interruption in travel,” Houlahan said. She said this is impacting educational opportunities as well as people’s ability to reunite with their families.

Houlahan said some people in Southeastern Pennsylvania, within the 6th Congressional District which includes all of Chester County and much of Berks County, have been waiting months for their U.S. Passports to arrive. Even expedited applications, which is more expensive, are taking more than 12 weeks for the U.S. National Passport Center to process, leaving hopeful travelers playing a stressful waiting game.

The congresswoman called these delays “unacceptable.”

“The federal government really has a genuine responsibility to intervene,” Houlahan said, “and fix this unprecedented problem.”

Houlahan said that she and Hill have assembled a bipartisan coalition of more than 200 lawmakers in Congress as well as stakeholders around the nation.

“We’re urging the Secretary of State to intervene,” Houlahan said, “and to address this passport crisis.”

Solutions lawmakers are suggesting include improving services within the U.S. National Passport Center including by accelerating plans to increase staffing.

She added, “When there is a problem it is definitely up to us as elected officials to solve this problem, to put party aside, to put our heads down and get to work figuring out how to be part of the solution.”

She added, “We will collectively not stop until the backlog is addressed.”

Jonathan Martin has been unemployed since December 2019. During the press conference, he said it took 18 weeks for his application to reach the processing department, noting that his check had been cashed by the U.S. National Passport Center, however, without delay.

Martin has an opportunity for international work, and wants to return to working as soon as possible. However, without a U.S. Passport, he can’t seize the opportunity currently available.

“It’s unreasonable. It’s unfathomable,” Martin said.

“It’s not just a PA issue. It’s a national issue,” Martin said. “This is just another unwelcomed hurdle … for everyone, after a very challenging year.”

“These stories are not unique,” said Arkansas’ Hill.

Hill later said that the printing centers are not the problem causing the delays. “It’s really the front-end, acquisition, assessment, that’s not a digital process — passport examiners are looking at physical documents — and I don’t think the State Department probably staffed that effectively during the pandemic in terms of maintaining a flow — using social distancing — but trying to keep staff levels up in accordance with CDC standards.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Passport Center has since caught up with the processing of 1.5 million applications which had been significantly delayed and backlogged.

Still today, Hill said, there’s more than another million U.S. passport applications that are awaiting processing.

Hill said, the U.S. National Passport Center could have increased its contractors prior to reopening last year, especially for customer service calls.

Houlahan said there were many variables that set this crisis in motion. Fees help fund the budget for the U.S. National Passport Center and its processing offices. “Those fees frankly dried up during the pandemic,” she said.

Hill added that about 17 percent of staffing for the U.S. National Passport Center has yet to return since the onset of the shutdown last year.

"People are not back to work, and that is really a big impact," he said.