GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Kirsten Gillibrand is a senator from New York who has been in Geneva this week to raise campaign funds: she is going after part of her constituency, American voters from her state who live in Europe. Democrats from New York who live in neighbouring France and Switzerland are being given an astonishingly rare treat that could provoke envy among other Americans abroad: a member of the US Congress has noticed and is listening to them.
Her trip has drawn the ire of Republicans back home, however, in the conservative press, with the state chairman of the Republican party, Ed Cox, saying “Senator Gillibrand touts her un-passed ‘Upstate Works Act’ while sipping champagne, popping canapés, and filling her campaign coffers in the shadow of the Swiss Alps. She is clinking glasses overseas when she should be cracking heads in Washington to actually get a bill passed.”
The National Journal published an article on the trip. “Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman at the government watchdog group Common Cause, said the trip ‘shows the insane lengths that candidates and members of Congress go to raise money for their reelection campaigns.’”
The criticism of Gillibrand and underlying assumptions that Geneva = overseas Americans = wealthy Americans come shortly after James Fallows, writing “The Fatca Chronicles” in The Atlantic, has cautioned Americans abroad that when they complain about lack of representation and unfair tax regulations they are likely to be viewed as “whiners”:
“Something most overseas Americans don’t realize: The home-bound population does not view them as a hardship class. A known risk category for long-term expats is becoming whiners—I speak as someone who’s lived outside the U.S. for several multi-year stretches and has been known to whine,” he wrote 2 January in “The Fatca Menace”.
Americans living overseas, from Canada to Switzerland, have been complaining loudly in recent months about unfair treatment at the hands of the IRS, starting with double taxation and onerous financial reporting requirements, such as the FBAR and the impact of Fatca on their ability to have bank accounts in the countries where they live, pay rent or own homes and try to set aside retirement money.
Town hall meetings in Geneva and protests in Canada have made it clear that the complaints are coming, not from a handful of wealthy diletante expats, but from a large group of middle income Americans who happen to live outside the country and who ultimately help the rest of the world better understand the US through personal contact.
Many fall below the $92,000 earned income exclusion, the bar set by the IRS for double taxation, and they have been vocal in their complaints about how the system has nevertheless cost them unfairly and grossly.
A significant part of their complaint but one that has so far fallen on deaf ears in the US is that they are taxed without representation. True, an American abroad technically should have Congressional representatives to whom complaints and pleas for help can be sent, and these overseas citizens are supposed to be able to vote and can, in theory, help elect people who understand their concerns.
The system sounds fine on paper, but the reality is very different. For a start, many Americans who live overseas, especially long-term residents or children born abroad to US citizens, no longer or have never had addresses they can use in a US state, and your US address is the starting point for all congressional relations.
Offspring are told by some states, in order to vote and to have a congressional rep, to use a parent’s last address in a state, but this can make voter registration an onerous process. They are simply not eligible to vote in some states.
The Overseas Vote Foundation has been working hard to improve the situation, but few Americans in the US appear to be aware that for a large number of Americans overseas the basic representation and taxation rights that are so stridently defended during electoral campaigns sadly do not apply to all citizens.
Groups like Geneva-based ACA (American Citizens Abroad) have been working hard to draw attention to the issues.
But even if all US citizens abroad managed to find a senator or representative willing to listen to them, this group is dispersed, so its voice remains weak. Their common concerns appear through a prism of all the states, so few politicians see them as having enough weight to be important.
Gillibrand isn’t just raising money for a campaign. She’s opened a conversation with a group of Americans who are often ill-treated by their own government because its elected leaders too often focus on larger vested interests. She should be given some credit by Democrats and Republicans alike for doing her homework and taking her responsibilities seriously.