Conditioning Citizenship Benefits on Satisfying Citizenship Obligations

Citizenship status is often discussed in terms of both its benefits and its obligations. A recently enacted federal statute (“the FAST Act”), which denies U.S. passports to certain citizens who owe significant unpaid taxes, provides an opportunity to examine the linkage between citizenship benefits and obligations. In particular, it raises the question under what circumstances, if any, should the benefits of citizenship be conditioned on compliance with the obligations of citizenship.

This Article identifies a typology for situating unpaid taxes within other circumstances under which passports may be denied to U.S. citizens. It then focuses on the instrumental, constitutional, and expressive impacts of the FAST Act, illustrating that the benefit-obligation linkage can have unintended consequences, not only from an instrumental perspective, but perhaps more importantly from its expressive impact on social norms. The Article then applies these lessons to a broader range of situations where federal benefits are conditioned on compliance with citizenship obligations, most notably the denial of student loan benefits for those young men who do not register with the Selective Service.

The Article concludes by acknowledging that, for certain types of benefit-obligation linkages and under certain circumstances, conditioning citizenship benefits on compliance with citizenship obligations might provide useful instrumental results. It cautions, however, against the wider expansion of this conditional approach to citizenship benefits, due to the unintended instrumental and expressive effects that might result.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.