Congress moves on federal employee bills

August 10, 2012

Several pieces of legislation of importance to federal employees crossed the congressional finish line late last week while some others reached the halfway mark, including one calling for the firing of those far behind in paying their federal taxes.

One bill that sprinted to enactment before legislators left Washington for their summer recess was introduced and passed by both the House and Senate on Aug. 2. That measure delays by a month, until Sept. 30, a requirement that agencies post online the public financial disclosure forms that are filed by some 28,000 senior federal career employees and political appointees.

The bill is a response to concerns that making those forms easily and widely available would increase the risks of identity theft and other crimes against those employees. A lawsuit was filed on the same day seeking to block the requirement, which is contained in the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or Stock Act.

The bill also closes what had been called a loophole in the Stock Act, by requiring that House members include transactions by their spouses and their dependent children in their financial disclosures. A separate requirement that filers must now disclose certain transactions within a month rather than annually remains in effect, the Office of Government Ethics has said, but a requirement that those reports be posted online was delayed.

Also reaching enactment was a bill that had been in a long-distance run in the House since being passed by the Senate more than a year ago, cracking down on misuse of government-issued charge cards. The measure is a reaction to more than a decade of reports finding abuse of cards issued to federal employees for travel expenses and for minor purchases such as office supplies.

Under the bill, agencies will have to tighten their internal controls over both types of cards, increase training of employees in their proper use and make sure they have policies in place for disciplining employees who misuse the cards.

The Senate, meanwhile, passed a measure that had cleared the House earlier this year, requiring the Transportation Security Administration to comply with a law providing reinstatement rights for employees who leave their jobs temporarily to serve on military duty. Exemption from the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act was one of the special personnel authorities granted to the TSA on its creation a decade ago. Sponsors argued that the agency is now well-enough established that it does not need the exemption, and that the TSA has been generally able to follow the law’s requirements in any event.

Another House-passed bill may prove to be a nonstarter in the Senate because of Democratic opposition. The bill would make people who are seriously delinquent on their federal taxes — generally meaning those facing a tax lien — ineligible for federal employment unless they fall under certain exceptions, including one for those making installment payments on their back taxes. The requirement would apply to both job applicants and current employees, who would have normal appeals rights if fired.

The bill would apply to congressional employees, but not to members of the House and Senate. Bills aimed at tax-delinquent members and contractors have been offered in the House, but neither has reached a floor vote.

Less controversial, although not yet introduced in the Senate, is a bill the House passed making clear that accounts in the 401(k)-style Thrift Savings Plan are subject to certain federal tax levies.

Finally, yet another proposal resulting from the General Services Administration conferences and bonuses scandal reached the starting line in the Senate. The bill would bar agencies from giving bonuses to employees found to have wasted taxpayer money, allow agencies to require the return of a bonus if such a violation is found in the same year as the bonus, and require high-level approval of any conferences costing more than $200,000. The sponsors are Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

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