Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.) is the champion of the federal worker. He should be. In his last reelection campaign, he took $55,215 in contributions from unions and associations of government employees. So far this election year, they have given him more than $30,000.
Ford has kept federal workers happy by hammering on a simple, reasonable message -- federal salaries should be comparable to those in the private sector.
But when it comes to forcing federal employees to pay their debts, Ford sings a different tune. For the last two sessions of Congress Ford has bottled up bills in his committee that would allow courts to garnish the wages of government workers.
That means if you sue your neighbor and he or she just happens to work for, say, the Central Intelligence Agency, you can win, but you will have a hard time collecting. The court can't order the federal government, as it can a private employer, to take the money out of your neighbor's paycheck.
Ford thinks the status quo is just fine. He says it would cost too much money to allow garnishment of federal wages.
It might cost Ford some money to support garnishment. The employee unions might not be so generous with him at election time. Ford wouldn't talk to us about the connection between campaign money and the bill, but his press secretary said that money was "not a reason" for Ford's opposition to garnishment. "He doesn't have any kind of guilt over political contributions," the spokesman said. Apparently not.
The policy against garnishment of federal wages dates back to 1846 when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government couldn't be sued without its consent. The archaic precedent was set so that agents of the federal government could also not be forced to fork over their due in a lawsuit.
Only in domestic cases -- alimony and child support -- can federal employees be regarded as individuals acting on their own. The courts can and do garnish their wages for family obligations. But even at that, the federal record is not impressive. Last year, the Health and Human Services Department revealed that 65,000 federal employees were behind on their child support payments by an aggregate of about $250 million.
The blanket protection has been waived for a few government agencies, including the Postal Service and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Their workers' salaries can be garnished for any reason. But the vast majority of federal employees, including the military, are protected. A judge can't garnish the paycheck of a member of Congress either.
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.) introduced the bill to change that in the last session of Congress. It died in Ford's committee. This year Jacobs introduced it again, and it probably will die in committee too.
But Jacobs refuses to let the issue go unnoticed. "It is an indisputable outrage that Uncle Sam should shield deadbeats," he told our associate Paul Zimmerman. "It's an insult to all federal employees to imply that they need such protection. I myself am embarrassed by it."
Another Capitol Hill source told us, "Ford is saying the government cannot afford to practice the good citizenship that it demands of other private employees."