House Rejects Bill That Would Allow Uncle Sam to Fire Federal Tax Cheats

Chamber passes measure prohibiting contracts with delinquent firms.

The House voted down legislation on Monday evening -- Tax Day -- that would allow the government to fire federal employees who fail to pay their taxes.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, revived a bill earlier this year that he shepherded through the House during the 112th Congress. The legislation passed the House last summer in a bipartisan vote, but the Senate never took it up, so it died. House lawmakers in the 113th Congress, however, rejected the measure this time around.

The bill (H.R. 249) would have applied to executive and legislative branch employees as well as Postal Service workers who are delinquent on their taxes and have not entered into an agreement with the government to repay the debt. The legislation also would have prohibited the government from hiring job applicants with seriously delinquent tax debt. The measure defined seriously delinquent tax debt as outstanding debt to the federal government for which a public lien has been filed. Under current law Internal Revenue Service employees can be fired for failing to pay their taxes.

The House on Monday passed a bill (H.R. 882) that would prohibit seriously tax delinquent federal contractors and grantees from doing business with the government. The bill does not apply to individuals seeking assistance through a grant entitlement program.

According to an IRS report, 107,658 federal civilian employees owed more than $1 billion in unpaid federal income taxes in 2011 -- a delinquency rate of 3.62 percent of the total civilian workforce. That’s less than half the tax delinquency rate of the general public, which is 8.2 percent. Retired civilians had a tax delinquency tab of about $533 million. More than 94,000 military retirees owed $1.6 billion in unpaid taxes in 2011, and active-duty service members owed about $109 million, the IRS report found. The figures do not include federal employees or military service members who owe taxes but have repayment agreements.

H.R. 249 did not apply to military service members or members of Congress. Chaffetz has introduced a separate bill, H.R. 884, that would require lawmakers to disclose any tax delinquency, as well as require an ethics inquiry into the matter and garnish members’ wages if necessary. That bill is in currently in committee.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said H.R. 249 was unnecessary, since agencies already can take disciplinary action against employees, including removal and wage garnishment, for failing to pay taxes. She said the bill showed how “out of touch” the current Congress is. “Congress could take up legislation on tax filing day that would address unfairness in the tax code or the underfunding that is preventing the IRS from eliminating the tax return identity theft that is plaguing our seniors, but instead, they will take up a bill to fire middle class workers whose pay they have just caused to be cut, who fall behind in their taxes, and of course, exempt themselves,” Kelley said.

Democrats with many federal employee constituents, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., and Jim Moran of Virginia, opposed the bill during floor remarks, saying it unfairly targets federal employees, the vast majority of whom pay their taxes on time.

Chaffetz argued that the legislation only affected tax delinquent government workers. “The ones who are doing the right job, and are patriotic, are protected under this bill,” said the Republican, in a heated exchange with Moran.

Chaffetz said he spoke to a group of human resources professionals within the federal government about the legislation, and they were supportive of it. “We told them about this, and said ‘You need some tools to take care of the bad apples.’ I could see every one of their heads shaking ‘Yes, please give us this tool.’”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that if enacted the legislation would cost $1 million in 2014 and less than $500,000 annually after that “to create certification forms, develop new regulations, and review records of current and prospective employees.”

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