The IRS and Justice Department cooperate to catch tax scofflaws. They can even have notorious ones arrested when they land on U.S. soil. But some in Congress think we could do more to grab people on the move or to prevent them from taking flight in the first place. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported on thepotential for using the issuance of passports to collect taxes. The idea–introduced several times over the last few years–is a little like requiring you to pay all your outstanding parking tickets to register a vehicle or renew your driver’s license.

The analog here is to restrict passports and travel until you pay the IRS. Several successive proposals have been defeated for now. Some say the right to travel is fundamental, practically constitutional. Moreover, as proposed, this would only apply to serious tax matters. The movement started in 2012, when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed that if you owe the IRS more than $50,000, you shouldn’t get a passport. See also Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Memo to Reporters and Editors.

These efforts morphed into Senate Bill 1813, introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Mostly it was about highway safety, but would also authorize the federal government to prevent Americans from leaving the country if they owe back taxes. One idea is to allow the State Department to revoke, deny or limit passports for anyone the IRS certifies as having a seriously delinquent tax debt in an amount in excess of $50,000.

A $50,000 tax debt is easy to amass today. In addition, tax liens are pretty standard. The IRS files tax liens routinely when you owe taxes. It’s the IRS way of putting creditors on notice so the IRS eventually gets paid. In that sense, the you-can’t-travel idea seems extreme. Some commentators noted that a far smaller sum of unpaid child support can trigger similar passport action. Others attack the proposal as potentially unconstitutional.

Some people figure the IRS needs all the help it can get to collect taxes. Others fear administrative glitches and potential administrative nightmares. The proposed law appears in the pending Highway Bill, more prophetically labeled the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” or “MAP-21”. It would add a new section 7345 to the code entitled “Revocation or Denial of Passport in Case of Certain Tax Delinquencies”.


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