Bill to force firing of seriously tax delinquent feds and contractors advances

House lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill that would prevent seriously tax-delinquent federal employees and contractors from working for the government. The representatives also approved a measure to extend the probation period for new civilian hires.

Federal workers who have willfully neglected to pay their income taxes would have to be fired, according to legislation approved on Wednesday by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The bill, which Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced in February, includes language to excuse those paying their debts through installment plans with the Internal Revenue Service.

"It's fair, it's right, it is a privilege to work for the federal government," said Chaffetz. "I think we should actually fire that employee because they're not trying to do the right thing. They're so upside down we can't make them whole."

Chaffetz sponsored a nearly identical measure last Congress but the bill died, in part because it defined delinquency as the issuance of a lien by the IRS. Critics said a lien could be a step toward resolution of a dispute.

Committee members approved an amendment from Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., that would exempt workers who could demonstrate financial hardship, tighten the process for bringing delinquent employees into compliance and provide a 60-day grace period for those working to resolve their debts.

The committee also advanced a similar bill that would prohibit companies or grantees from winning awards in excess of $150,000 unless they certify in writing they have no seriously delinquent tax debts. An amendment to the bill that Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., offered specifies that if an agency provides contractors with a waiver to the law, it must provide Congress with explanation within 30 days.

In addition, Senate legislation introduced in February by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., additionally would forgive individuals who successfully argue their debt is attributable to a spouse.

In a close vote, lawmakers also approved a bill introduced last week by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for federal workforce issues, that would extend the one-year probationary period new civilian employees must complete to enter the competitive service. The legislation would require two years of probation.

During the markup, Democrats argued the current one-year period allows ample time to evaluate and determine whether employees are suited to their jobs. The underlying concern is managers do not know how to properly assess new employees during the probationary period, they said. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., proposed an amendment that would replace the legislation with a bill introduced on Tuesday to boost training for federal supervisors, but the committee defeated the measure.

"This is just another step to take adverse action against an employee who has already demonstrated fitness for their job," said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. "If we can't do that in six months to a year, those managers are woefully inadequate to their job."

Federal unions and management groups expressed opposition to the bills. In a letter sent on Monday to committee members, Federal Managers Association National President Patricia Niehaus wrote technical mistakes in evaluating tax delinquents could put employees through a drawn-out appeals process and add to administrative costs by requiring human resources staff to evaluate the tax history of all new hires.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley criticized lawmakers for considering the bills without first holding a hearing. The current probation period provides sufficient time for managers to evaluate employees, she said. In addition, a tax lien is too uncertain a standard for federal employment.

"This is nothing more than part of a larger ongoing assault against federal employees," Kelley said. "With another possible furlough situation still on the horizon for this Friday, when the current government funding bill runs out, the federal workforce doesn't need these cynical attacks."

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