By Bryan Jung
A major backlog of U.S. passport applications has spurred a flood of calls by angry American travelers to House and Senate offices on Capitol Hill, as the delays worsen.
Congressional offices are scrambling to address the issue at the height of the summer travel season, as many desperate constituents plea for help in dealing with unprecedented passport delays.
Members of Congress and their staff regularly attempt to assist constituents with their passport issues before travel plans are derailed.
Senate and House offices, which typically help a few dozen individuals expedite their passports in any given year, are all of the sudden dealing with hundreds to thousands of cases in 2023.
New efforts are now underway to ease the process for Americans attempting to get the documents they need for overseas travel.
Passport Application Wait Times Worse Since Pandemic
Wait times for those who have applied for new or renewed passports have multiplied several times this year.
The pre-pandemic processing time was between 4 to 6 weeks.
Applicants are currently waiting 10 to 13 weeks to receive their new passports, unless they pay for expedited process, which cuts the wait time down to 7 to 9 weeks.
After the State Department’s online passport renewal system failed earlier this year, the amount of unprocessed applications dramatically increased, amid an existing backlog, fueled by the ongoing post-pandemic jump in international travel in 2023.
The slowdown of passport renewal requests during the pandemic and a subsequent rush of Americans travelling overseas, has created a serious backlog at the State Department.
The U.S. State Department said it received roughly 400,000 passport applications a week during March, down from 500,000 earlier in the year.
“We’re getting 500,000 applications a week for passports. That’s 30% to 40% percent above last year, so it’s dramatic,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Appropriations Committee in March.
The department is now on track to surpass the record 22 million issued passports last year, at 25 million.
Staffers are currently working tens of thousands of overtime hours every month, while hundreds more workers are hired and others are transferred from other offices in the agency to help, a State Department spokesperson told Axios.
Congress Swamped With Requests of Assistance
A few Senate offices told The Hill that they have roughly seen a fivefold increase in passport cases from 2022 to 2023 so far, which has increased the case work by constituent services staffers.
Staff members told Axios that constituents’ weddings have been canceled, study abroad opportunities have been missed, and faith-based mission trips have been skipped.
The backlog has worsened to the point that local passport offices have even rejected congressional requests for appointments on behalf of their constituents, with exceptions in only extreme situations, such as attending a funeral.
Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) office has gone through nearly 6,000 requests for help from those seeking new or renewed passports—twice the amount from 2022 and a 7,000 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.
The passport crisis “is eroding faith that the government can provide even the most basic of services,” his office told Axios in a statement.
“It’s been the No. 1 office coming to our office,” Mr. Rubio told The Hill, referring to the State Department who represents Miami International Airport, one of the busiest U.S. airports for international travel.
“I get it—a lot of people didn’t travel during COVID, their passports expired, now they realize it and they’re trying to get on it, but it’s been incredibly disruptive.”
Rubio added that he has gotten a lot of flack from the airline and cruise industries about the issue.
Staffers for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) reported receiving nearly 1,600 requests for passport assistance in the first half of the year and is projected to handle nearly 3,200 cases.
The total number of calls for assistance in 2022 was 701, with the office handling less than 1,000 in total between 2009 and 2020.
Mr. Warner criticized processing times, flaws in the now-shuttered online renewal pilot system, and hours long wait times on the travel emergency phone line.
“We’ve seen these workers work on Saturdays, work overtime as we try to get through this enormous challenge,” added Mr. Warner. “The flip side is we also know this is a crisis.”
Some lawmakers said that one of the reasons behind the backlog is that many Americans are unaware that many counties do not accept travelers whose passports expire in less than six months.
“We’ve got people who’ve spent $20,000 to [take] their dream trip but they didn’t check their passport,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told The Hill.
He also said that legislators need to work with airlines to make sure that travelers are more aware about passport expiration conflicts.
Mr. Tillis also praised his fellow Senate Republicans’ legislation and said that it would “make the plumbing more efficient.”
Senate Republicans Propose Legislation to Fix Backlog
A bipartisan letter from the House was sent in May, signed by more than 190 members of Congress, which stated that passport cases were making up a “disproportionate percentage of our offices’ constituent services caseload.”
Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Pete Ricketts (R-N.E.) have jointly introduced legislation aimed at helping to ease the ongoing application delays.
They both proposed a 12-week processing time requirement for State Department workers and a tracking system for applicants, so they can review the processing of their passport applications.
The proposal was inserted into the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
“It is a very big mess,” Mr. Lankford told The Hill in an interview.
He said his office used to have 35 to 50 active passport cases per week, prior to the backlog. But now, that has risen to between 150 and 200.
“That’s just people coming to us panicked,” Mr. Lankford said, adding “these are folks saying that they requested their passport in February or January — it’s July. They don’t have it yet.”
Mr. Lankford said that his office even received requests from individuals from outside of Oklahoma for help, after noting his work on the issue. But his staff had to direct them to the representatives from their states for help.
Airlines for America, a top trade association and lobbying group for the airline industry, has urged travelers to check their passports and has praised the work by lawmakers.