Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., introduced the bill.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., introduced the bill. Susan Walsh/AP

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Lawmakers Advance Legislation Raising Penalties for Appropriations Violations

A bill would prescribe how agencies should punish employees who violate the Anti-Deficiency Act.

A House panel on Thursday voted along party lines to advance a measure that would strengthen enforcement of a law against agencies defying congressional appropriators, but Democrats argued the bill is a “solution in search of a problem.”

The Anti-Deficiency Reform and Enforcement Act (H.R. 6891), introduced by Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., prescribes stricter penalties for more serious violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act, including the firing of federal employees who break the law “knowingly” or with reckless disregard for it. In a mark-up Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 14-11 to send the legislation to the full House.

Mitchell said his bill will help preserve Congress’ constitutionally guaranteed “power of the purse.” He said the Anti-Deficiency Act currently is not effective in preventing agencies from spending money outside of how lawmakers allocate funding in appropriations bills.

“Federal employees that violate the Anti-Deficiency Act are subject to two types of sanctions: administrative and punitive discipline, including suspensions without pay or removal from office,” he said. “Additionally, there are fines and imprisonment, but there have been almost no instances of prosecutions of individuals in violation of the act, and no consequences to the agency judged to be deficient.”

The bill also expands agencies’ requirement to report violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act to include whether they were done “knowingly” or as a result of “a failure to exercise reasonable care in carrying out duties.” It requires the Government Accountability Office to offer legal opinions about potential violations of the law when requested by Congress, and requires agency inspectors general to perform regular audits for undisclosed violations.

Under the legislation, agencies would be given the authority to offer cash bonuses to employees who report potential Anti-Deficiency Act violations.

But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the committee, said violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act are rare—13 violations on average were recorded per year since 2013—and offenders already are adequately punished by their employers.

“Current law gives agencies the flexibility to determine appropriate penalties to impose on employees, depending on the circumstances of each case, and already include suspension or removal,” Cummings said. “This legislation would take away agency discretion to impose appropriate discipline depending on the facts of each case . . . The data does not justify a need to propose substantial changes to federal law related to adverse actions. It’s a solution in search of a problem.”

Mitchell argued that he suspects there are many unreported violations of the law, citing the fact that the disclosure of violations currently comes disproportionately from the Defense Department.

“There have been meaningful violations that we know of, so the question arises why have we not seen more violations than we have?” Mitchell said. “[The] law is on the books, but it is not effectively administered and it has not been enforced.”