Jul 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Congress swamped by pleas for help with passports

Animated illustration of US passports filling the screen.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Congressional staffers are scrambling to save family vacations, destination weddings, mission trips and more as desperate constituents flood Capitol Hill with pleas for help in dealing with unprecedented passport delays.

Why it matters: Many U.S. Senate and House offices that typically help a couple dozen Americans expedite passports each year have juggled hundreds to thousands of cases this year — and appeals for help have soared in the summer travel season.

  • This year, staffers for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) have waded through nearly 6,000 requests for help from those seeking new or renewed passports — double the number from all of 2022 and a 7,000% increase from pre-COVID levels.
  • Staffers for Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D), who has called the situation a "crisis," received more than 1,500 requests for passport help in the first six months of the year — up from fewer than 1,000 total from 2009 to 2020.
  • Aides to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) fielded 767 requests for passport help from January through June — up from just 16 in the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
  • Aides to Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (D) have dealt with 535 passport cases this year — more than three times the total they had over the seven years before the pandemic.
  • "It’s worse than anyone realizes," Aaron Fritschner, spokesperson for Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), told Axios. "I sit in the front office and often take calls when people get upset. It really has been unlike anything I’ve seen."

Members of Congress and their staffs typically take pride in being able to save the day by solving constituents' passport issues before travel plans are derailed.

  • Now staff members describe constituents' weddings being canceled, study abroad opportunities missed, faith-based mission trips skipped.

The big picture: The State Department's online passport renewal system failed earlier this year, dramatically increasing an already growing backlog fueled by the ongoing post-pandemic surge in international travel.

  • The department is receiving roughly 400,000 passport applications a week — down from 500,000 earlier in the year — and is on track to surpass the record 22 million issued passports last year.
  • The backlog has gotten so bad that regional passport offices have had to reject even congressional requests for appointments on behalf of their constituents — with exceptions only in extreme situations, such as people needing to attend a funeral.
  • State Department staffers are working tens of thousands of overtime hours every month, the agency is hiring hundreds more staffers and has pulled in volunteers from other parts of the agency, a spokesperson told Axios.
  • "More Americans have passports than at any time in our history — 46% today versus 30% in 2008," the spokesperson said. "We anticipate that this increased demand for passports will continue."

What we're watching: Faced with growing numbers of angry constituents, scores of senators and House members from both parties have signed letters to the State Department, demanding action.

  • One bipartisan letter sent in May was endorsed by more than 190 members of Congress, and stated that passport cases were making up a "disproportionate percentage of our offices’ constituent services caseload."
  • Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Pete Rickets (R-Neb.) have introduced legislation aimed at reducing the backlog.
  • Lankford's office has had five times as many cases requests for passport help in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2022. Lankford's team is working through 200 active cases.
  • The passport debacle "is eroding faith that the government can provide even the most basic of services," Rubio's office told Axios in a statement.
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