The U.S. government is building the world’s largest debtors’ prison: the United States.
Beginning this month, the Internal Revenue Service will begin denying passports to some American citizens with unpaid taxes and, in some cases, revoking the passports of Americans with tax delinquencies. The government will in effect place those with unpaid taxes under arrest, effectively denying them their right to travel.
More precisely: They have an unpaid IRS liability amounting to $50,000 or more. The IRS’s aggressive schedule of interest and penalties for unpaid taxes ensures that a relatively small amount of unpaid taxes can turn into a $50,000-plus liability with remarkable speed.
The IRS has remarkable investigative tools and collections procedures at its disposal. Say what you will about the Patriot Act, it does not oblige Americans to file detailed paperwork annually with the Department of Homeland Security detailing their personal affairs, business arrangements, housing situation, health-insurance coverage, etc. The IRS has that power, and then some: It can seize assets, garnish wages, put liens on property, and more. Still, there are occasions when it finds itself unable to collect a debt. Sometimes, that is because it is dealing with a crafty person who manages to hide his income and property from the government. More often, that is because it is dealing with a person who simply cannot pay.
When it comes to relations between citizen and state, it’s always a matter of “Show, don’t tell.” Here is a data point for you: Under federal sentencing guidelines, the recommended sentence for involuntary manslaughter is 10 months to 16 months. The average sentence for tax evasion? Seventeen months. The average sentence in a tax case is longer than the average sentence for a car thief (twelve months), a forger (twelve months), or a felon convicted in a drug case (14 months).
But that’s tax fraud. We aren’t even talking about that. We’re just talking about Americans with unpaid back taxes.
The right to travel is — like the right to free speech, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievance — a basic civil right. Americans as free people have a God-given right to come and go as they please, irrespective of the preferences of any pissant bureaucrat in Washington. Yes, we curtail people’s rights in certain circumstances — when they have been charged with a crime and convicted after due process. Tax fraud is a crime; having unpaid taxes is not.
The U.S. government needs a periodic reminder that it was created by the states and by the people, not the other way around, and that it exists at the sufferance of the people — not the other way around. Suspending passports in the course of a civil dispute — a civil dispute that may well be in litigation or soon to be in litigation — is banana-republic, totalitarian stuff.
Suspending passports in the course of a civil dispute is banana-republic, totalitarian stuff.
Congress did this, and Congress can undo this — and Congress should undo this.
Yes, people should pay their taxes. Most people do. But there are limits to what the government may permissibly do to citizens in any situation, and much narrower limits to what the government may permissibly to do citizens who have neither been charged with nor convicted of any crime in the matter — which is not, after all, a criminal matter in the first place.
People should pay their taxes, and the people at the IRS should do their jobs honestly and ethically. Most of them do. But not all of them. Lois Lerner, the IRS boss who illegally targeted conservative groups for harassment in the runup to the 2012 presidential election, is happily enjoying retired life in some Washington suburb while collecting a fat federal pension. She didn’t lose her passport. Former IRS commissioner John Koskinen lied to Congress about the situation and oversaw the destruction of evidence. He still has a passport. The crimes — actual crimes — of the powerful and the connected go unpunished, while those who for whatever reason have an unmet obligation to the IRS are treated like East Germans locked behind the Checkpoint Charlie of the federal bureaucracy. If you want to know why faith in our institutions is at such a low point, meditate on that.
In the meantime, Congress should repeal the statute enabling the IRS to effectively place Americans under house arrest over unpaid bills. And if Congress fails to act, its members should be made to pay a price. My senators are Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and my representative is Pete Sessions. What say you, gentlemen?
— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent of National Review.