According to a post on the Democrats’ Senate Floor Twitter feed, 78 Senators voted in favour of Orrin Hatch’s Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (S. 1269), which includes the passport revocation provisions discussed yesterday: to revoke passports from people with US$50,000 of unpaid taxes & fines, or people who never obtained or do not provide a Social Security number.
In November 2014, American Citizens Abroad issued a position paper explaining why passport revocation is an inappropriate and dangerous means of tax enforcement. Patrick Weil, in a Yale Law Journal article, has detailed the long history of abuse of the administrative power to revoke passports. And, as stated here previously:
Due to the U.S.’ sharply harsher penalty structure on under-reporting of similar assets & items of income simply because they’re located in another country, it’s likely that a disproportionate number of victims of this bill would be U.S. citizens in other countries. Hatch is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the most prominent Republican supporter of Chuck Schumer (D-NY)’s Ex-PATRIOT Act, another well-known emigrant harassment proposal.
The roll call on this “trade facilitation” bill (showing the votes of each Senator) was posted after I first wrote this; it shows that all 44 Democrats, 32 Republicans, and both the independents voted for the bill, while 20 Republicans voted against and 2 Republicans did not vote. The “yea” voters include not just traditional enemies of the diaspora like Chuck Grassley, Chuck Schumer, Jack Reed, and Harry Reid, but FATCA opponent Rand Paul as well.
Similar passport revocation provisions passed the Senate once before three years ago (in a highway funding bill) but got shot down by a competing House highway funding bill which coincidentally did not include any passport confiscation provisions. On the bright side, The Hill has predicted that this “trade facilitation” bill, too, will get nowhere in the House — though again, not due to any concern for the diaspora, but rather because of the bill’s controversial anti-currency-manipulation provisions (Title VII).
The twisted procedural history
The Atlantic describes the decision to bring S. 1269 up for a vote as a concession to Senate Democrats, as they support its anti-currency manipulation provisions. In total, four separate trade-related bills were brought up for votes. According to reports in The Hill, Harry Reid (D-NV, another long-time supporter of passport confiscation) had been pushing for all four bills to be combined. However, due to a split between Senate Democrats and President Obama, the four-in-one deal broke up and instead the “trade facilitation & trade enforcement” bill was scheduled for a separate vote.
Or, more precisely, H.R. 644 (originally a bill providing for charitable deductions for donations of food inventory, which passed the house in April) was scheduled for a Senate vote. Then, they replaced its contents with the text of S. 1269 — the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which includes the passport revocation provisions discussed yesterday — and voted to pass that. Now, in order for this to become law, the totally different versions of the bill passed by the two chambers still have to be reconciled in conference, and the bill signed by President Obama.
Hatch was very proud of himself for all the procedural manoeuvring in which he was willing to engage to get passport confiscation to the floor, as you can see from his press release.
While we could not – and still cannot – guarantee that all four bills will become law, we certainly want to see the custom and preferences bills pass the Senate.
I’m a co-author of both of those bills. They are high priorities for me. It was never my intention to let them wither on the legislative calendar. I was always going to do everything in my power to help move them forward.
S. 1269, which contains the passport confiscation provisions, is what Hatch refers to as the “customs and enforcement bill”; “Trade Promotion Authority” is S. 995, “Trade Adjustment Assistance” is S. 1268, and “trade preferences” is S. 1267.
Reactions to the trade bills
The Asian Trade Centre, a Singapore-based organisation, criticised the efforts to hitch this awful “trade facilitation” bill to the bigger wagon of the trade preferences bill:
But insisting on including this set of rules alongside the TPA debate just illustrates the nature of the debate in Washington. It is not about creating helpful rules to guide trade in the next five years. It is about following narrow, domestic partisan interests and using flawed arguments.
In the end, it also shows the rest of the world that the United States cannot be viewed as a trusted partner because—no matter how much you bend to accommodate the Americans in a negotiation—they will always add one more bitter pill and insist that you swallow it. Even then, passage of the final deal is never assured.
Bernie Sanders, for his part, is opposed to all these trade bills because of working conditions in other countries whose exports to the U.S. may increase under the bill. In particular, he doesn’t like it when groups of foreign blackmailers confiscate migrants’ passports and hold them hostage in order to extract money from them; as he stated in a speech on the Senate floor in opposition to one of the trade bills (161 Cong. Rec. S2783):
32 percent of the [electronics] industry’s nearly 200,000 migrant workers in Malaysia were employed in forced situations because their passports had been taken away or because they were straining to pay back illegally high recruitment fees. In other words, American workers are going to be forced to compete against people in Malaysia–immigrant workers there whose passports have been taken away and who can’t leave the country and who are working under forced labor situations.
Yet he has nothing to say when domestic blackmailers threaten to do the same thing.
The midnight knock on the door
The first inkling we had of these passport confiscation provisions was on Monday, and the earliest news of this deal to get the “trade facilitation” bill to the floor was not even a day in advance, when it got posted on the Republican Senate “Floor Monitor” Twitter feed, while I was still sleeping. I found out about it during my lunch break when I saw Mark Twain’s comment pointing to Hatch’s speech, and the Senate Republican Policy Committee posted details of the vote.
At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 14, 2015, the Senate is scheduled to begin consideration of H.R. 1295 and H.R. 644. An amendment containing S. 1269 (Customs Enforcement) will be offered to H.R. 644. At noon on Thursday, May 14, 2015, the Senate is expected to proceed to a roll call vote on H.R. 644, as amended with S. 1269, at a 60-vote threshold. This will be the second in a series of two votes at noon.
Do you really want to keep waking up for the rest of your life in fear that 535 demagogues in a distant city have decided — in the dead of night while you were sleeping — that omelettes are on the Homelanders’ breakfast menu and you are the egg who is going to be broken?
Externalising the costs and internalising the benefits
The Senate Republican Policy Committee’s summary of S. 1269 failed to mention anything at all about the passport confiscation provisions of the bill; they simply stated it would “decrease deficits” without explaining exactly on whose backs they planned to balance the budget. Specifically, the Congressional Budget Office claims that passport confiscation will raise US$231 million of revenue in the next four years, and US$398 million by the end of 2025. This is barely more than half of the US$743 million the JCT claimed this provision would raise the last time around, back in 2012.
As discussed in S. Rept. 114-45 (see Senate Finance Committee PDF if the congress.gov link isn’t up yet), all major items of spending in this bill are for the benefit of Homelanders: $179 million in reductions of customs duties collected due to an increase in the de minimis threshold below which no duties are collected; $200 million in increased payments to domestic manufacturers under the Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act, et cetera. But rather than sufficiently increasing customs user fees to pay for all the additional spending, Hatch and his gang decided to hide the costs elsewhere — just like how FATCA got into the HIRE Act.
The absurd speed at which the Senate managed to get this law for revocation of passports to the floor — while dragging their feet on concessions to the concerns of emigrants — clearly demonstrates the precarious position of those who choose to retain their U.S. citizenship while living outside of the United States, in particular those who have no other citizenship. Congress has no reason to care about your concerns; your votes are diluted among all fifty states, and you don’t even have a non-voting representative like the Puerto Ricans or the American Samoans.