U.S. citizens detained abroad still face tax fines. Lawmakers want to change that The number of Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad has increased in the last decade. If they’re able to return to the U.S, they face bureaucratic hurdles to getting their lives back on track.

U.S. citizens detained abroad still face tax fines. Lawmakers want to change that.

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The number of Americans wrongfully detained abroad has increased in the last decade, and if they're able to return to the U.S., they face bureaucratic hurdles to getting their lives back on track. As NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to change that.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: A few months after journalist Jason Razan returned to the U.S. after being wrongfully imprisoned in Iran for 544 days, he got a surprise in the mail.

JASON REZAIAN: I got one of those bills from the IRS saying, you owe much on this year, and you owe this much on this year because of failure to pay on time. Here's the interest that's accrued.

SPRUNT: Bill was for more than $6,000, representing late penalties and interest on taxes he couldn't file when he was imprisoned.

REZAIAN: The bills kept mounting. Once we got rid of some fees, new ones would appear.

SPRUNT: Eventually, his bills ballooned to $22,000. Rezaian said the IRS told him they wanted to help, but they didn't have the authority to just make it all go away.

REZAIAN: I don't look at this as the IRS out for blood and treasure. This is a oversight that nobody really thought about.

SPRUNT: He eventually settled the dispute with the IRS but says the consequences of oversights like that go far beyond the financial.

REZAIAN: Adding layers of bureaucratic red tape on top of what you've just been through - it feels like a new series of impediments when all you want to do is run. You want to move forward. You want to make up for the time that you've missed.

SPRUNT: A few years ago, Rezaian was interviewing Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He paused to share what he was going through with the IRS.

CHRIS COONS: It was very surprising to me. It's unjust that Americans should have to pay this kind of penalty.

SPRUNT: That's Senator Coons. He got to work drafting a bill and then took it to his colleagues.

COONS: Their initial response is, wait. That's true? When you are released from being a hostage and home to the United States, the IRS finds you. Yes, they have to. And if we don't pass this bill, they'll keep doing it.

SPRUNT: The bill affects a very narrow slice of the American public, an estimated 40 to 60 people. Coons says not only is it the right thing to do.

COONS: Frankly, doing legislation like this also helps sustain the muscle memory of what it means to legislate together.

SPRUNT: Senator Mike Rounds agrees. He's a Republican from South Dakota and co-sponsored the bill.

MIKE ROUNDS: I think that shows that there actually is a response to those types of really human needs that are out there. And the fact that we do it on a bipartisan basis and do it fairly quickly - I think that's what the American people want to see from Congress, even though it doesn't happen very often.

SPRUNT: And he says members of both parties coming together to tackle narrow issues helps lay the foundation for other larger, thornier legislation, like addressing the national debt.

ROUNDS: It starts by having friendships and by having a trust factor that you can build in to gather something that will stand the test of time.

SPRUNT: Republican Congressman French Hill of Arkansas is leading a version of this bill in the House.

FRENCH HILL: Partisanship is alive and well every day in Congress. But it's not covered because it's not of any interest to people who want to cover the conflict between individual personalities within parties or between parties. But that is not indicative of what happens every day in Congress.

SPRUNT: The bill was approved by the Senate without opposition. But because it's a tax bill, the legislation has to clear the House first. And so far, it hasn't. One of the Democratic co-sponsors, Dina Titus of Nevada, says part of the strategy is to get the bill in front of more House members.

DINA TITUS: It's like a ripple. Pretty soon we'll have a pretty formidable list of co-sponsors, and once you have that, it's easier to bring it to the floor.

SPRUNT: She says it's bills like these that show Congress at its best.

TITUS: I've found that if you stay away from ideology, you can sometimes get things done that are just practical. It doesn't have to be a major nuclear policy treaty. It can be something that affects people's daily lives.

SPRUNT: The Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, said in a statement it's encouraged to see that Congress is considering this legislation. But bipartisan support in the House isn't enough. The speaker has to bring it up for a vote. Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, the Capitol.

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