Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., led the opposition to the bill.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., led the opposition to the bill. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

House Republicans Fail in Effort to Fire All Tax Delinquent Feds

Democrats say bill disparaged the federal workforce and wasn't necessary.

The House on Wednesday failed to pass a bill that would fire any federal employee delinquent on his or her taxes, marking the second consecutive year the measure fell short.

The vote occurred after a contentious debate on the House floor in which Republicans argued in favor of the legislation, while Democrats said the measure unfairly targeted the federal workforce. A majority of lawmakers voted in favor of the bill, with 266 in favor and 160 opposed, but a procedural hurdle required two-thirds of the chamber to approve it for passage.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and three-time author of the Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act, said the measure would bring fairness to the vast majority of feds who pay their tax bills on time.

“Let me make clear right away: we’ve got great federal workers,” Chaffetz said at the top of his remarks. “But there are some bad apples.” He added a higher percentage of feds pay their taxes on time than does the rest of the American public. “They deserve a pat on the back for that,” he said.

He referenced, however, a request on Tuesday by the Drug Enforcement Administration chief for more latitude in being able to fire people, as well as similar calls from other agency heads. Chaffetz said his bill, which would allow agencies to fire federal employees who fail to pay their taxes and have not entered into an agreement with the government to repay the debt, would help solve at least one removal issue.

“For those of you that are screwing over the American taxpayer: bye-bye,” Chaffetz said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the oversight committee’s ranking member, led the charge against the bill, saying it sought to find a solution to a problem that did not exist. He added it would be more difficult to collect tax debts from individuals without jobs, and the government already possesses tools to garnish wages of its tax delinquent employees. 

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., took issue with a Republican argument that the measure would help federal agencies operate more like private industry.

“If any board of directors of any company in the country treated their employees like we treat our federal workers, they’d all quit and the company would go bankrupt,” Hoyer said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said that while Republicans talked about fairness, the bill was prejudiced against federal employees.

“We are disparaging the federal workforce,” Connolly said. “No matter how you put lipstick on the pig, it’s still a pig.”

According to federal data, about 97 percent of federal workers pay their taxes on time, compared to a 91 percent compliance rate for the general public. The bill also would prohibit the government from hiring job applicants with seriously delinquent tax debt. Under current law, Internal Revenue Service employees can be fired for failing to pay their taxes.

According to the latest IRS report, civilian employees owed $1.1 billion in back taxes in 2014, up slightly from 2013. The tax delinquency rate among civilian workers was 4 percent in 2014, about the same as in 2013. The overall tax delinquency rate among federal civilian and military employees and retirees fell slightly from 2013 to 2014, from 3.3 percent to 3.1 percent. The tax delinquency rate in the legislative branch, including members of Congress, was higher than the executive branch. The House tax delinquency rate in 2014 was 5.04 percent; the Senate rate was 3.5 percent.

Also on Wednesday, the House unanimously agreed to a similar provision that would apply to tax delinquent federal contractors. Members of both parties agreed with Chaffetz’s assessment that the bill was “the fair and right thing to do.”