International travel is a good thing for the country, both economically and politically. It promotes international understanding and tourist spending, and facilitates other international trade. We don’t think it’s fair or legal for the government to charge you a fee to exercise your rights under the First Amendment and international human rights treaties to enter or leave the USA.  Those rights are all but absolute, and rules that restrict or burden them, such as by imposing fees, are subject to strict scrutiny.

Judging from the response to the government’s latest proposal to increase passport fees (in order to cover the increased costs of including a uniquely-numbered remotely-readable RFID chip in each passport), we aren’t alone in our views.

More than a thousand people filed comments with the Department of State by yesterday’s deadline to oppose the proposed passport fee increases. In addition to the comments filed by individual citizens and travelers and by the Consumer Travel Alliance in conjunction with other civil liberties and privacy advocates, comments objecting to the proposed fee increases were filed by United Airlines, the American Society of Travel Agents, and the Interactive Travel Services Association.  United Airlines told the State Department, as did the CTA, that the proposed rules would violate the Administrative Procedure Act, and demanded that the Department reveal the cost analysis that they claim supports the fee increases and extend the comment period for responses to it before finalizing any fee increase. ASTA (which represents brick-and-mortar travel agencies) and ITSA (which represents online travel agencies), have generally been at each other’s throats; we’re not sure we’ve ever seen them file joint comments in a Federal rulemaking.  The overall picture painted by the industry comments is of the extent to which the proposed fee increases would, in fact, impose a meaningful burden on international travel.

Members of Congress, particularly from border districts, have also objected, with Rep. Chris Lee of New York writing to Secretary of State Clinton that the fee increase would “further burden American travelers,” and fellow Rep. Brian Higgins, also from upstate New York (along the busiest sector of the Canadian border), issuing a statement that, “Creating financial barriers to the international traffic flow will cost our national economy and this community greatly in the long run.”

According to its filing, “Given its questions, and the importance of access to fairly priced travel documents to support international travel, United has sought a copy of or further details on the CoSS [Cost of Service Study] on March 9, 2010. United was advised that the CoSS is not a study or a report, but rather a model which the Department plans to demonstrate during a public meeting sometime in April or May of 2010.”

We’ll keep you posted of any announcement we hear of an extension of the comment period or a public hearing on the proposal to raise passport fees to pay for RFID chips in passports.