Monday, June 25, 2007

During a contentious Senate hearing last week, consular chief Maura Harty took personal responsibility for the backlog of two million passport applications that has wreaked havoc on honeymoons, family getaways and business trips.

She was hailed by many for her contrite performance. Unfortunately, though Mrs. Harty was apologetic, she was not entirely honest.

The mess occurred because Mrs. Harty’s office prepared for 16.2 million passport applications this year, but that number proved too low by roughly 1.5 million. When questioned at the hearing about how she could have missed the mark so badly, Mrs. Harty tried to shift the blame, responding, “[W]e predicted 16.2 million based on our study with BearingPoint.”

The BearingPoint study, however, did not produce the 16.2 million figure; Mrs. Harty and her staff did. The results of the report, in fact, would have lead to a calculation of approximately 18 million applications this fiscal year — just slightly over the number expected to be filed.

On the heels of creating a backlog of two million passport applications and then misleading Congress about it, Mrs. Harty is poised for a promotion. And unless the White House acts to stop it, Mrs. Harty could soon ascend to one of the top positions at the State Department.

While it’s not fair to assign the entire blame for the backlog on Mrs. Harty — Congress moved to require passports and the Department of Homeland Security was eager to implement the requirement for air travelers this year instead of next — it was her blunder, or rather series of blunders, that caused the pile-up.

Rather than err on the side of caution on staffing, Mrs. Harty hired the bare minimum to deal with the number of passport applications she expected this year, 16.2 million. As early as last November, applications were coming in at a much higher rate than her office expected, receiving 250,000 more than projected for that month alone.

This January, Consular Affairs received 1.8 million applications, or 600,000 more than projected.

By her own admission, this flood of applications did not convince Mrs. Harty to change course. She thought it was a blip.

Mrs. Harty should have known better. State’s and DHS’s interpretation of the BearingPoint study — which estimated only the number of people who would apply for a passport to comply with the new travel rules — was that 4.1 million travelers would do so in the first year. That figure would only result in a total of 16.2 million if the number of people seeking passports would otherwise stay flat from last year. But that would ignore entirely recent history.

Since 2003, passports have been a growth business, with applications rising by an average of 18 percent annually between that year and 2006. And that 18 percent yearly increase was before the implementation this January of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Simple math dictated that far more than 16.2 million would apply for a passport this year. Adding 18 percent growth over the 12.1 million passports issued in fiscal year 2006 to the 4.1 million figure results in a total of just over 18 million. (BearingPoint was willing to release its study, but a spokesman said the company contractually needed State’s permission to do so. State refused to release the report before publication of this column.)

Aggravating matters, Mrs. Harty apparently lacked meaningful contingency plans. No blueprint was in place, for example, to ramp up staffing if needed.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Mrs. Harty waited until this March — nearly five months after it became apparent that her estimate was woefully insufficient — to hire more staff than originally planned for processing passports.

Mrs. Harty had every reason to err on the side of caution. The price of underestimating applications and then going into crisis mode has been extremely high. Passport centers have been working nights and weekends, State has brought back retirees, and call-center capacity has had to expand exponentially. Not only would more staffers up front been much less expensive, but they would have been needed for years to come. According to Mrs. Harty’s testimony, 23 million applications are projected for next year, and the number could hit 30 million by 2010.

At the same time as Mrs. Harty is attempting to fulfill her pledge to senators that fixing the passport mess is her top priority, she is learning the ropes of a new job. On a semi-acting basis, Mrs. Harty is fulfilling the duties of undersecretary of management. The current office-holder, Henrietta Fore, is now the acting head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and also the acting Director of Foreign Assistance.

Because running USAID — especially in her highly regarded, hands-on management style — is an all-consuming job, it is little wonder that State spokesman Brenda Greenberg indicated that Mrs. Fore is leaning heavily on Mrs. Harty. “They’re working together as a team,” Mrs. Greenberg said.

Though a different State Department spokesman — after learning the reason for the inquiry — claimed that Mrs. Harty only serves as a “backup,” it’s clear that State plans to recommend Mrs. Harty for the promotion when Mrs. Fore is confirmed by the Senate to take over USAID.

Which means the ball is now in the White House’s court. Does President Bush want to reward the woman largely responsible for the ravaged plans of millions with a promotion?

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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