WASHINGTON — A contrite State Department official promised Tuesday to speed up passport processing as a panel of angry senators complained that they've been deluged with calls from irate constituents who are postponing honeymoons, missing family reunions and paying for canceled vacations.
"This is an example of the ineptness that absolutely destroys Americans' confidence in the federal government doing anything right," fumed Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who told Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, that each of the senators had horror stories.
"This is really inexcusable," Vitter said.
Harty promised the panel chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that the agency is hiring enough employees and calling back retired workers to cut processing times to eight weeks by the end of September and to six weeks by the end of the year.
"No one is more aware that many travelers are not receiving their documents in time," Harty said. "I deeply regret that personally and professionally. We regard the situation as untenable."
But Nelson noted that the State Department knew in January that it was facing an unprecedented demand for new documents and asked why the department failed to acknowledge it was "way behind the eight ball.
"You knew it was coming down the road," Nelson said.
Harty said she took responsibly for the delays, which were prompted by new travel restrictions that require air travelers to Mexico, Canada and some Caribbean nations to travel with passports.
Harty said the agency ramped up hiring and expanded its facilities but still fell short. She said many of those applying for passports appear to be people who don't need them for travel but want them for identification. She said the agency had done too good a job in public outreach to encourage people to apply for passports.
"We simply did not anticipate American citizens' willingness to comply so quickly with the new law," she said in prepared remarks to the committee.
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