House bill would fire tax-delinquent federal workers

 

The House this week is scheduled to vote on two bills that would block federal employees, job candidates and contractors from working for the government if they owe back taxes.

One measure, sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), would require federal agencies to fire employees and reject potential hires with “seriously delinquent” tax debt, meaning those who have been hit with a tax lien. Democrats opposed that bill when it was considered by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month.

A second measure, also sponsored by Chaffetz, would prohibit federal agencies from awarding large contracts and grants to contractors who are not tax-compliant. That bill passed the committee with bipartisan support.

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg) (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Critics say the legislation to fire tax-delinquent feds would unfairly target civil servants, some of whom may already face economic hardship because of the furloughs that certain agencies have proposed to absorb the government-wide spending cuts that took effect on March 1.

“This is a perfect example of how out of touch this Congress is,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents approximately 150,000 federal workers.

About 3.6 percent of the nation’s nearly 3 million federal civilian employees owed a combined $1 billion in back taxes in 2011, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.

That’s a small number of people, but Chaffetz argues that the government still needs to weed out those individuals.

“We want someone who is honest in their dealings to have that federal job,” Chaffetz said in an interview on Monday. “If they’re thumbing their noses at the government as federal employees, then it’s probably symptomatic of other undesirable behavior in their work.”

In a statement on Friday, the NTEU said that the government already has adequate remedies in place to deal with federal workers who fall behind. The union said executive-branch agencies, for instance, can take disciplinary actions that range from counseling to removal.

Critics of the firing legislation say the measure would be counterproductive, since taxes can be harder to collect from individuals who lose their jobs.

“The measure actually undermines the ability of the government to collect the unpaid taxes,’ Rep. Elijah Cummings said last month, according to a Washington Post article. “It is much more difficult to recoup delinquent taxes from someone who is unemployed.”

Chaffetz said the firing bill is still necessary as a deterrent. “When you’re talking about receiving federal taxpayer dollars, I think there’s an obligation to comply with tax law,” he said. “If you’re not paying your taxes, let’s find someone who will.”

The NTEU noted in its statement that the firing bill would not apply to members of Congress. “It’s a double standard that Congress imposes furloughs and firings on the federal workforce yet exempts itself,” Kelley said.

The House passed a similar bill last year, but the measure died in the Senate.

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Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.
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