A Senate amendment to the highway bill that would give the IRS the power to lift the passports of American citizens who owe more than $50,000 in back taxes is drawing heat on the House side of the Capitol as an abridgement of due process rights.
The measure, included in the two-year, $100 billion bill, sailed through the Senate with little notice on a bipartisan 74-22 vote. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tried to kill the amendment in the Senate Finance Committee markup of the highway bill — to no avail.
The passport provision is reportedly the brainchild of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. However, e-mails and phone messages about the issue to Reid’s staff have gone unanswered.
According to Senate Finance Committee background information, if the IRS certifies that a person has “seriously delinquent taxes,” defined as in excess of $50,000, the secretary of state can determine “whether to issue, deny, renew or revoke a passport.”
The proposal, if adopted by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, would go into effect Jan. 1, 2013.
House Judiciary Committee member Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the measure endangers due process rights and empowers the IRS to administratively restrict travel rights without a judicial hearing.
“Everyone is entitled to their day in court,” he said. “Tax evasion is inexcusable, but this provision would enable the IRS to administratively deny an American’s ability to travel without first being found guilty of any crime in a court of law.
“We have in place, certain constitutional protections for every American citizen, and the right to fair trial is central among them. Be warned, if this provision is included in the final passage, we have given the IRS a grip over our constitutionally protected due process rights.”
The House approved its own highway legislation that is basically an extension of a 2005 bill, which has been temporarily extended several times. The 2005 measure did not include the passport provision; a House-Senate conference on the legislation will work out the differences between the two versions of the bill.
Generally speaking, revocation or denial of a passport is left to the judicial system and usually occurs in cases where there is a risk of a person trying to flee the country. However, this would not be the first time the government has used passports to collect debt.
The welfare reform legislation of 1996 included a provision that set up the Passport Denial Program. According to information from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement the provision “requires the secretary of state to refuse to issue a passport to any person certified by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services as owing a child support debt greater than $2,500.
“Further, the secretary of state may take action to revoke, restrict, or limit a passport previously issued to an individual owing such a child support debt.”
The program has resulted in the collection of tens of millions of dollars.
The government claims the passport provision for delinquent taxes could bring in more than $500 million in its first five years.
Sensenbrenner's staff rejected the idea that the child support measure is precedent for the IRS bill, noting that in child support cases, a court is involved and disputes can be brought before a judge. However, the IRS measure is done administratively.
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