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Unfair Treatment of Overseas Americans

According to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO), there are 4.1 million American citizens resident overseas who reside outside the US and who are not government or military personnel or their dependents.

Did you know that the "United States is the only developed country in the world that insists on taxing on the basis of citizenship rather than residency"? In other words, if you're a US citizen, even if you haven't visited the US for years, you're still liable to pay income taxes. To be fair, the US currently exempts the first $80,000 of overseas income for non-residents, and allows non-residents to deduct foreign incomes taxes. But on what basis does the US government take it as its right to tax non-residents at all?

Actually, the US levies income taxes based on both citizenship and residency: income earned by anyone in the US is taxed, and income earned by US citizens anywhere is taxed. Think of the fun if all countries operated this way!

AARO lists among its priorities maintaining the partial exemption on non-resident income and ensuring that non-residents are counted during the 2010 census and taken into consideration accordingly.

I think AARO can and should go much further, because as long as 4.1 million Americans are distributed among 435 representatives -- less than 10,000 per House member -- they won't have any power. As AARO itself notes, if these 4.1 million Americans formed a state, it would be the 25th-largest -- by my calculation, just behind Louisiana and just ahead of South Carolina. It would have six representatives and two senators. It makes no sense to count permanent, non-governmental overseas residents in their state of last residence -- they clearly aren't being represented under the current system. Let's give them their own virtual state at the federal level. How would that work?

During each and every future census, overseas Americans would be enumerated and treated as if they are residents of a single state. These Americans would elect two senators with staggered terms, just as other states do. As for members of the House, 'district' lines would be drawn in a fashion similar to states -- though since it is the state governments that draw their own district lines, in the case of overseas Americans, a non-partisan commission would take this task. A guiding principle would be that gerrymandering would be avoided. Based on AARO's population data, if the process were held today, the districts might look something like this:

  • District 1: Canada
  • District 2: Mexico (part)
  • District 3: Mexico (part), Central America, South America
  • District 4: Northern Europe, Western Europe
  • District 5: Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Near East, Africa
  • District 6: Near East, Asia, Australasia
A political cynic would (rightfully) point out that members of Congress generally don't vote to reduce their own power, and that the House is a zero-sum game -- i.e., these new representatives would have to be taken away from the 435 already present. Since these changes would require a Constitutional Amendment, that same Amendment could provide for the one-time expansion of the House as appropriate.

With representation in Congress -- representation tied far more to their interests than the states in which they happened to last reside -- overseas Americans would be able to battle fairly for their rights.

Perhaps the way to pitch this in today's world is to call overseas Americans our civilian front line in the war on terror. This may be opportunistic, and even slightly shameless, but it also happens to be true. Americans overseas are often exposed to the threat of terrorism in a way we here at home can't appreciate. And Americans overseas are our best hope for the future, demonstrating to the world that, whatever they may think of America, Americans themselves are often industrious, compassionate, and, yes, tolerant. These unofficial ambassadors of daily life deserve an equal say in our political system.


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