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Tax Law

IRS Brushes Aside the Constitution to Make Way for FATCA

In a Tax Notes International article [gated] today [News Analysis: Who Is A Manager Under FATCA?, taxanalysts® Worldwide Tax Daily, March 4, 2013], Lee Sheppard discusses remarks about FATCA by Jesse Eggert, Treasury associate international tax counsel, at a March 1 IFA meeting. The most troubling aspect for me comes in the last part, when Sheppard describes a Q&A over the intergovernmental agreements and the IRS rep casually dismisses any constraints on the Treasury's attempt to bind the US with these documents as a matter of international law. There are two main questions here and both answers strike me as deeply problematic. First, there is this:

Can there be an IGA with a country that has no treaty or tax information exchange agreement? Yes, Eggert responded. It would have to be a Model II or nonreciprocal Model I . Amendments would have to be made to add information protections and assistance provisions.

With respect, this does not accord with what we have been given to understand so far about these IGAs. One need only read the preambles to the IGA models and signed agreements and consider the treaty power briefly to see that there is a very large legal difficulty here. As I have said before (and have a feeling I will be saying repeatedly), the Executive Branch cannot simply bind the US to any agreement it wants to without doing violence to a constitutional process that has been expressly laid out and subject to decades of analysis and debate by the country's most preeminent legal minds.

This is why the IRS has been very quietly implying that the IGAs interpret existing treaties. I don't agree on the merits that this could possibly be true, but the IRS needs it to be true because if it is not true, the only alternative is that the IGAs are sole executive agreements entered into by the executive branch with no congressional oversight whatsoever. That puts them on the most precarious legal ground in terms of foreign policy power in the US, and by this statement Eggert pushes them closer in that direction.

Second, there is this:

Does Treasury have authority to make IGAs? Eggert argued that IGAs are within Treasury's statutory authority to make FATCA regulations (section 1471(b)). Treasury and IGA signatories are discussing how to make domestic implementing laws consistent.

Again with all due respect, this just simply is not true as a matter of US law. The executive branch does not have the power to authorize itself to enter into treaties without congressional oversight. It is the constitution that provides the treaty power, and Congress is expressly involved. Congress could have granted the executive specific authority in this case, as it has done in other cases, but it clearly did not do so here. It is not clear what Eggert means by "making domestic implementing laws consistent." Maybe that refers to the domestic laws of treaty partner countries, which will have to change their data privacy laws to accomodate the information sought by the IRS. If so, that has nothing to do with the US. From what we have seen so far, it seems clear that the IRS is treating the IGAs as operational once the other country so indicates it is operational from their perspective (cf Mexico).

Arguing that the authority is implied within Congress' mandate to Treasury to issue regulations under
 1471 is blowing a hole through the treaty power. It argues that Congress empowers the Executive Branch with treaty making authority with each and every directive to enact regulations. It makes a farce of the congressional executive agreement process that has been begrudgingly accepted as authentic by most constitutional scholars today. And never mind the old standard, the Article II treaty power. By this logic if the President wants an international agreement--any international agreement of any kind--he never needs to consult the Senate again, he can simply find some reference by the Congress directing his regulators to regulate. If Eggert is right in this assessment, it is not a stretch to see this as the beginning of the end of the Article II treaty ratification process in the United States. In other words if this works, then it's anything goes when it comes to the Executive Branch overriding domestic law with an international agreement.

Finally, I note that one other Q&A Sheppard mentions is also intriguing, though on the surface it seemed uncontroversial:

Existing IGAs will be interpreted to say that countries may choose the definition of an item in the final regulations which came later in time. Treasury will not amend IGAs wholesale when regulations change, Eggert explained.

This may seem benign--it provides flexibility despite the apparently rigid parameters of the documents (which are treaties, after all, and not so easy to just unilaterally alter at whim). But this is in fact very interesting as a legal matter because it quietly moves the world a little closer to yet another US tradition that many people in other countries find odd if not outright incompatible with international law, namely, the treatment of treaties as equal in legal status to other laws, including statutes and case law, so that treaties can be overridden at any time by a new statute or judicial decision. But it goes a further step to include regulations within that overriding scope--where they might not so clearly belong even under US law.

In other words, the IRS is saying that not only does the "last in time" rule apply to IGAs (as they would to any US international agreement), but we'll apply the last in time rule to other countries too (even if under their own laws the treaty would override later-enacted domestic laws); moreover the last-in-time rule is now extended to treasury regulations (a unilateral law that will be used to "interpret" a bilateral agreement, yet another controversial treaty interpretation position), and finally we are going to make it the treaty partner's choice to pick among the regimes to get the best result (which treats treaty partners not as negotiators in a bilateral agreement but rather in the same way as taxpayers subject to an elective regime).

It is getting progressively more difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of violations of laws and norms being undertaken by the IRS in order to get FATCA to work. It is rather disheartening (in the sense of being a scholar who studies legal process as though it matters) to realize that to many or most people involved in this project, all of these violations are just technicalities and semantics getting in the way of a result everyone wants.


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