The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a variety of methods to collect delinquent or back taxes. It can slap a tax lien on your property and sell it, or it can levy against your assets. It can also garnish your wages, but it can't take your house. Just recently the United States Senate gave the IRS another tax collecting tool: the power to revoke or suspend your passport, deny your application for its renewal or withhold approval for a first-time applicant.

Newsmax reports that the Senate measure authorizes the State Department, as instructed by the IRS, to take the passport of any American citizen with a back tax debt of more than $50,000. The measure, attached as an amendment to the Highway Bill, was passed by a vote of 74-22, on a bipartisan basis. The bill is still required to pass the House of Congress and the president, before it can become law.

According to The Atlantic, the bill, officially titled Moving Ahead For Progress In The 21st Century Act (MAP-21), was introduced last fall by Senator Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.); Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), added the passport provisions.

Easily Passed
While the bill easily passed the Senate, some members of the House of Representatives opposed the passport revocation, as it is seen as a violation of due process. Newsmax writes, according to specifics of the proposal, the IRS must first certify that a taxpayer is "seriously delinquent." The State Department can then decide to "not issue, decline to renew or revoke a passport" of the accused delinquent taxpayer.

Despite Senate passage of the bill by a significant majority, Senator Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah), opposed it and tried to squelch the passport section while it was still in the Senate Finance Committee. If the measure is passed as originally written and amended, citizens owing back taxes may find themselves surprised as they're prevented from boarding an international flight. The passport measures are designed both to deter tax evaders or delinquents from fleeing the country to avoid payment, and to help recover what people owe the government.

The Atlantic does mention that there are some exceptions to the foreign travel ban, including taxpayers regularly making payments to the IRS under an IRS-approved payment plan. Also excepted are taxpayers legally disputing the debt, or people who must travel internationally under an emergency or humanitarian circumstances. Although the travel ban proposal has been opposed as possibly unconstitutional, University of Georgia constitutional law professor, Timothy Meyer, believes the potential law would be upheld if tested in the courts. Due process requirements are not violated by the measure, says Meyer.

Legal Precedents
There are legal precedents for travel bans and passport denials or suspensions, Meyer points out. For example, the State Department monitors passport applications for people who owe more than $2,500 in child support and may deny applications or suspend their existing passports. Not all legislators agree that the proposal provides constitutional guarantees. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, contends that the proposed law threatens due process and assigns too much power to the IRS.

"Everyone is entitled to their day in court," Congressman Sensenbrenner 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."

The Bottom Line
Government officials estimate that in its first five years the passport law could help collect more than $500 million in tax debt. Daniel Shaviro, a tax policy expert and professor at New York University School of Law, acknowledges the legitimate value of the passport provisions of the bill as a means of preventing the flight of tax evaders. He warns that the law could also be misused. Beyond its potential value as a means of collecting what taxpayers owe the IRS, some experts worry that the law might be abused.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.