Federal employees might find comfort that a House committee once riven with partisanship found broad agreement on a number of workplace bills this week. But the one exception demonstrates that the panel is not above taking unnecessary and potentially counterproductive shots at the workforce.
The legislation included a bill that could protect taxpayers and the wildlife they enjoy on public lands as much as the federal employees who protect the environment.
Oversight and Government Reform Committee members approved a broad range of bills that could help Uncle Sam fight brush fires, combat federal employment discrimination, stop access to porn on government computers and punish tax-delinquent contractors and employees.
It was the committee’s first set of legislative votes since the current Congress took office in January. The chairman was pleased.
“We’re off to a good start,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said. “It was a key indicator that we are working well together.”
That applied to most of the bills but not one Chaffetz has pushed for years.
His Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act would bar serious federal tax delinquents from federal employment, which means some could be fired.
“The fact that our federal workforce owes more than $1 billion in back taxes is a very serious problem,” Chaffetz said.
But compared with what?
Compared with the general population, feds are better taxpayers. The delinquency rate for federal civilians was 3.9 percent in 2014, down slightly from 4.1 percent the year before. The delinquency rate for those who intentionally don’t pay, the target of the legislation, would be even lower.
Yet the portion of feds who pay their taxes as they should is “much higher than the 91 percent compliance rate for the general public for 2013, the latest statistic available for the general public,” said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat.
Despite complaints from Democrats who voted against the bill, Chaffetz insisted his measure was not meant as a slap at feds.
“We’re bending over backwards not to disparage federal employees,” he said during an interview, “but to weed out the bad apples.”
The bill also could weed out good employees who fell behind, got fired because of it, then would have no income to pay their taxes.
“Denying them federal employment that they are otherwise qualified for will certainly be unfair in some situations and in many situations will lead to a higher likelihood that the government will never receive the taxes it is owed,” Maureen Gilman, legislative and political director of the National Treasury Employees Union, told a subcommittee hearing earlier this month.
Similar legislation that would block federal contracts to companies and individuals with serious tax delinquencies was approved with bipartisan support, as were the other bills on voice votes.
Federal firefighters hired seasonally to extinguish wild land blazes and others temporarily employed in federal land management would be allowed to compete for permanent positions under legislation approved by the panel.
“Our bipartisan legislation would put them on equal footing with other federal employees with respect to competing for vacant jobs in the civil service, including permanent seasonal jobs,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.).
Currently, temporary workers are not allowed to compete for the permanent jobs under the merit system promotion procedures available to others. That can lead to high attrition, increased training costs and an erosion of federal fire-fighting capabilities, he said.
Along with Connolly, the Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act is sponsored by Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Don Young (R-Alaska).
Mark Davis, vice president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, praised the measure, saying it “removes a nonsensical regulatory barrier to career-advancement opportunities for long-serving federal wild land firefighters and other temporary seasonal workers.”
Also approved was legislation designed to strengthen equal employment opportunity officers by having them report directly to the agency head.
Cummings sponsored the measure along with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and praised the Coalition for Change, an organization that fights federal workplace bias, for its work on the bill.
While federal fire fighters are risking their lives, they presumably would not be able to view porn on government computers. But some federal employees have, and the committee wants to make it clear that won’t be tolerated.
The Eliminating Pornography from Agencies Act would instruct the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidelines prohibiting access to porn, except on computers used for investigative purposes.
“While there are rules in place at most agencies to ban this kind of unprofessional and unacceptable workplace behavior, it continues to take place,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “There is absolutely no excuse for federal employees to be viewing or downloading pornographic materials on the taxpayers’ dime.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.