By Joe Davidson
Thursday, March 18, 2010; B03
A congressional panel heard testimony Wednesday on legislation that would allow federal employees to be fired if they don't pay their taxes. As you might expect, much of the talk was about tax policy and the merits and practical implications of the bill.
But enveloping the grand Rayburn House Office Building hearing room, where large portraits of congressional committee chairmen looked down on the proceedings, was an unfriendly atmosphere that contrasted with the sometimes-forced comity among the elected officials. That mood is being fueled, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) noted in a prepared statement, by "ongoing rhetoric that demonizes civil service and civil servants."
The environment for federal workers seems to have become increasingly unkind, and the legislation only adds to that perception. The bill, introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), would require the government to fire staffers if the Internal Revenue Service places a tax lien on them. A lien also would kill a job applicant's chance of being hired.
The measure probably won't get far, with the majority Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel apparently opposed to the measure. But it does contribute to the increased skepticism federal workers face, along with recent newspaper articles that question their salaries and Rep. Joe L. Barton's (R-Tex.) attempt to get the names of those in certain agencies who are paid more than $100,000 annually.
Certainly, everyone agrees all taxpayers should pay what they owe. And the average citizen might understandably be angry with federal workers who are paid with tax dollars but who willfully don't pay their fair share in return.
The legislation, however, would treat federal workers more harshly than other taxpayers (or tax dodgers), even though federal ethics regulations already allow the employees to be disciplined if they become scofflaws.
"Despite their dedication to advancing the nation's interests, federal employees continue to serve as a punching bag for the press," Richard J. Oppedisano, national secretary of the Federal Managers Association, said at the hearing. "And with the economic downturn, this mentality has crept its way onto Capitol Hill."
With members of his organization sitting in the audience, Oppedisano lamented the "fed-bashing fire," which he said seems to be spreading. "It is our belief that federal employees should be held to the same standards as the rest of the American population, receiving no special treatment while also avoiding the bull's-eye that so often falls on their backs."
The problem with the Chaffetz bill, said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), who chaired the hearing of the subcommittee on the federal, Postal Service and the District of Columbia, is that a lien amounts to an accusation, not a conviction. Yet the punishment would be imposed.
"Of course, it may be argued that the federal employee may challenge the validity and amount of the lien from her place in the unemployment line after her termination, if she has sufficient resources to do so," he said. "However, the unemployed federal worker is put at a marked disadvantage and has far less opportunity to challenge the IRS decision than is afforded to individual taxpayers generally."
Chaffetz said he was not out to punish those who were working with the IRS to resolve their tax problems. "If someone does the right thing, I will bend over backwards to help them," he said. "It's the people who are cheating the system who I want to fire."
One out of the five witnesses agreed with him. Christopher S. Rizek, a Washington tax lawyer who has worked with the Chaffetz campaign, probably spoke for many when he said, "It is doubly insulting to millions of hardworking and compliant taxpayers when federal employees cheat. . . . They are 'double-dipping' in the worst sort of way."
But Connolly said that the bill presumes federal workers guilty until proven innocent and that the IRS already garnishes the wages of federal workers who owe taxes. Firing them would only make it harder for Uncle Sam to collect on the debt.
The legislation has the "sole benefit," he said, "of scoring political points at federal employees' expense."