Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on Wednesday introduced legislation, S. 3790, that would make government workers with outstanding tax debts ineligible for continued federal employment. A separate bill, S. 3792, would hold lawmakers accountable for unpaid taxes.
Lawmakers would be required to report outstanding liabilities. They would then be subject to an ethics investigation and their salaries would be reduced based on the amount owed. The bill would exclude employees and legislators who agree to repay delinquent taxes, or who are challenging the claims through the Internal Revenue Service or courts.
"Legislators and government employees should not be exempt from the laws they write and enforce," Coburn said in a statement. "The very nature of 'public service' demands those being paid by taxpayers contribute their fair share of taxes. They should lead by example, or be held accountable if they believe they are above the law."
IRS data shows 100,000 civilian federal employees owed more than $1 billion in federal income taxes in 2009.
Coburn's bill is not the first congressional effort to crack down on tax delinquents in the federal workforce. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in March introduced similar legislation (H.R. 4735) to ban employees who owe taxes from federal service. Chaffetz's bill also creates an exception for federal employees who are settling their debt under a payment plan, or who have requested or are awaiting the results of a collection due process hearing. Legislation (H.R. 572) Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., sponsored would prohibit government contractors that carry more than $100,000 in tax debt from receiving contracts or grants. Both measures are before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Government employee and management groups expressed concern that Coburn's bill singles out federal workers and could penalize those who accidentally make mistakes in their tax filings.
"Mandating the termination of employment is uncalled for given the existing and successful programs the government uses to collect any such debts, not to mention that such firings would make it next to impossible to collect the overdue money," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
According to Federal Managers Association National President Patricia Niehaus, the legislation is too broad and doesn't take individual workers into account.
"It is imperative we retain the flexibility to handle individual cases based on their own sets of circumstances," Niehaus said. "Sen. Coburn's bill attempts to apply a single, uncompromising solution to a complex problem, and this legislation may impact a much greater audience than intended."