A group of Canadians has put together a campaign to explore the constitutional violations posed by FATCA in Canada. Some of these issues were raised by pre-eminent constitutional scholar Peter Hogg, this letter to Finance. Others arise because of the adoption of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA), which bypasses data protection laws and lacks even the minor anti-discrimination clause seen in other IGAs.
I’ve been asked if these issues are serious. I think they are. The issue FATCA raises for me is not so much sovereignty–though I perfectly understand the instinct on that front–but rather it is the problem of serious mismatch between the goals targeted and what will be attained by FATCA when law on the books meets law in practice. The constitutional challenge is a signal that something is seriously awry with FATCA. As with most activism, this effort demonstrates that a not-small number of people are experiencing some not-small violation of fundamental principles, and in light of government failure to respond, are forming grassroots responses in an effort to achieve a remedy.
Let’s have a look at why this might be so.
The goals of FATCA are clear and the law writes a clear narrative that is palatable to the public: we must stop tax evasion. Who would possibly speak out against that goal? I don’t know too many people that would.
However, the law in practice is a completely different story, with a normative dimension unique to the United States. This dimension has, as far as I can see, been completely ignored by lawmakers both in America and internationally. It involves the attempt by the United States to impose taxation of persons based on their legal status instead of their actual inclusion in American society.
I know that this s difficult to understand conceptually. An example might help.
A was born in Illinois to a Swedish mother and an American father. The family moved to Sweden when A was 6 months old, and she spent her whole life in Sweden, working there, paying taxes there, using the schools and the health care system there, and getting married to a fellow Swede. A is a US national, and therefore subject to US taxation as if A had done all of those things in America. A has always been subject to US taxation, and FATCA doesn’t change that in the slightest. But A never paid any attention to US law or politics, decisions of the US Supreme Court, or Congressional hearings. Why would she? She is a resident of Sweden paying high taxes and living her life. A has bank accounts at her neighbourhood bank, and tax-deferred savings account sponsored by her government.
In the eye of FATCA, A is an offshore tax evader.
Since she is an evader, she must be monitored to ensure she is caught and brought to justice, and further that she goes forward in full compliance with all US tax laws. Since she cannot be trusted to come forward, her bank must disclose her personal and financial information, and that of her spouse (guilty by association), to the IRS. Since the bank has no incentive to do that, it must be threatened with sanctions if it fails to do so. Since banks don’t want to work under that threat, Sweden must be compelled to step in and facilitate the data transfer.
As I have said often, this is an extraterritorial jurisdictional claim that requires the help of other countries. Getting help is not a choice, it is a necessity. One country simply cannot assert its jurisdiction over people who live in another country, without that other country’s help. American scholars know this, and they say America should ask for the help it needs. The problem that we have seen FATCA reveal is that this help necessarily involves America’s needs trumping domestic laws that apply to targeted persons in the country of their residence.
I do not think America should be demanding help from other countries in taxing the residents of those countries. America needs to learn to tax its own residents, like every other country must do. If the world’s biggest economy cannot figure out how to make its own people pay for their own public goods, it is difficult to see why other countries should be enlisted to help it along.
This is why the mismatch between the law on the books and the law in practice is so troubling in the case of FATCA. Looking past the use of legal status instead of residence as a jurisdictional claim, a regime that requires financial institutions to report nonresident accounts to these account holder’s home countries is absolutely necessary to protect the income tax base from widespread tax evasion facilitated by foreign bank secrecy laws. Of that there is simply no doubt. To the extent FATCA can do that, it is to be applauded and most of all extended globally because this is a global issue. I explain and advance this argument here.
Most countries cannot act alone in instituting this necessary regulatory structure, since foreign financial institutions would simply shun a given market rather than comply. This is the potentially positive side of what makes the United States different from most, maybe all, other countries. This also explains why the OECD is very very quickly trying to ride the coattails of FATCA (before it is too late and the US changes its mind about being part of a global data exchange system, as it has before), by gearing up to create a global FATCA, or call it a – GATCA.
GATCA is FATCA minus two key aspects: the normatively unjustifiable legal-status based tax, and most of the economic sanctions. The UK has done something similar with those same parameters with respect to a selected list of countries. (The OECD’s GATCA is also fully reciprocal, but that deficiency in FATCA is another issue). These differences make a GATCA supportable exactly where FATCA is not (both systems have other major flaws but we can leave those aside for the big picture here).
FATCA’s enforcement of legal-status based taxation renders it normatively unjustifiable. It violates the residence principle, which Reuven Avi-Yonah has gone so far as to call an international customary law. It is also of course completely unworkable on a global scale: imagine if other countries decided to learn from the US example and started smoking out their own disapora to enforce their own FATCA regimes. It is unimaginable that if the OECD countries got together and seriously debated status-based taxation, they would agree on a global standard to enforce it for all countries. The common reporting standard GATCA they have devised, which is so obviously based fundamentally on the residence principle, shows that the OECD recognizes that enforcing status-based taxation is not and should not be a goal of any project to counter tax evasion.
Yet no conversation is being had about the outlier, whose demands will make enforcement of GATCA more extensive and more expensive for every other country.
Residence based taxation is not perfect by any means but it is the least worst alternative if governments want to continue to use personal income taxes in a world in which individuals are to be allowed the freedom to move. FATCA deserves to fail to the extent it ignores this reality. A constitutional challenge will at minimum open a desperately needed political conversation about why this is so.
Allison Christians is H. Heward Stikeman Chair in Tax Law at McGill University