Amid all of the partisan bickering over fiscal and tax policy in the Congress during 2011, it has been heartening to see a burst of bipartisan support for reforms to facilitate the travel of low-risk visitors to the United States. There have been at least three major pieces of authorizing legislation introduced in recent weeks as well as a push to reform the Departments of State and Homeland Security as part of the appropriations process. Encouraging and securing international travel does not lend itself to silver bullet solutions, but seeing the Congress increasingly recognize the economic value of travel is a positive development. Members of Congress are keeping an appropriately keen eye on the security implications of changes to travel policy but the solutions under discussion should maintain our high level of immigration integrity.

The new focus on visa reform comes after a broad range of experts have urged that significant changes be implemented. Among those issuing visa reform recommendations have been government advisory committees (President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Council), scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Heritage Foundation, and business organizations such as the U.S. Travel Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The need to improve the travel “product” is especially timely as the new Corporation for Travel Promotion is about to launch a strategic campaign to generate additional demand that could strain an already-taxed system.

Senators Amy Klobuchar and Roy Blunt are leading a bipartisan effort to move S. 1653, which would:

  • Allow the Department of State to reduce the diversion of visa fees to unrelated State Department activities to bolster their ability to hire consular officers and build capabilities;
  • Allow State to waive in-person interviews for certain visa renewals; and
  • Require State to report to the Congress on how it will meet expected increases in visa demand projected by the Commerce Department.

These Senators have used their Commerce Committee perches to push these issues and to work with the State Department to urge longer-term planning for visa issuance.

Representative Joe Heck and a bipartisan group of about 20 members have also introduced H.R. 3039 to improve the visa issuance process. This bill would:

  • Establish a visa processing standard of twelve days in high growth countries like Brazil, China, and India and require State to hire and deploy enough officers to meet this standard;
  • Require a pilot program to conduct visa interviews by video conference;
  • Improve transparency on visa wait times; require long-term planning for growth markets; and
  • Allow State to issue longer visa validity periods than offered to Americans.

Heck’s position as a conservative freshman member from a swing state makes him a particularly intriguing member to be urging travel reform.

Last week, Senator Chuck Schumer and freshman conservative Mike Lee introduced a major bill to reform aspects of the visa process. Most notably, it would: allow expansion of the Visa Waiver Program by tying participation to visa overstay rates; allow visas from China to be for a five-year duration; establish emergency and off-peak visa processing fees; require a visa videoconferencing pilot akin to the Heck bill; encourage immigration from Canada and for people buying homes in the U.S.; and encourage CBP to expand the Global Entry program to priority visitors. Schumer’s role as the Democratic “jobs” message lead should make this a priority piece of legislation for the Senate. The VWP language is similar to a proposal previously introduced in the Senate by Senators Barbara Mikulski and Mark Kirk and by Rep. Mike Quigley and a bipartisan group in the House.

In addition, the Senate’s FY12 appropriations bill for the State Department, authored by Senators Pat Leahy and Lindsay Graham, includes provisions requiring State to meet a thirty-day issuance standard for visas in China, Brazil, and India, asking for a similar report on meeting visa demand as the Heck bill, and allowing a visa videoconference pilot. The Senate’s FY12 Homeland Security appropriations bill, drafted by Reps. Robert Aderholt and David Price, also has funding for additional CBP officers and excellent language on the need to improve the entry process and to implement recommendations from the Secure Borders and Open Doors advisory committee. The House companion includes new officer funding, a request for a CBP staffing plan to address demand, and concerns over duplicative TSA screening for in-bound passengers.

In an era of big spending programs that have shown little return in terms of job creation, the measures in these bills would create both short-term and long-term economic growth while maintaining the security enhancements meant to secure international travel. Congress should enact both a solid package of authorizing provisions and important funding priorities as part of the appropriations process by the end of the year.