House defeats bill to fire federal workers delinquent on taxes

The House on Monday rejected a GOP bill that would have set up a process for firing federal workers who have "seriously delinquent tax debts" and prevented people in that situation from being hired by the government.

Members voted 250-159 in favor of the Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act, which was sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). While that's a clear majority in favor of the bill, it was called up under a suspension of House rules, which required a two-thirds majority vote.

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The bill's failure on the suspension calendar means Republicans could try to bring it up again under regular order, which would only require a simple majority for passage.

The bill was supported by 35 Democrats, and seven Republicans voted against it. Last year, the House passed a similar suspension bill in a 263-114 vote, with the help of 59 Democrats.

Republicans said the bill is needed to ensure federal workers are held to a higher standard of trust, in light of the $1 billion or so in delinquent taxes by employees covered by the bill.

"We want to hold ourselves to the standard that the taxpayers believe we should," House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said.

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Chaffetz said that while most federal workers are not delinquent on their taxes, about 107,000 workers owe about $1 billion, and their failure to pay means they are "thumb[ing] their nose at the rest of us."

Democrats said the bill would be counterproductive by potentially firing federal workers and making it harder to ever collect money from them. They also said it's not needed given that the delinquency rate for federal employees is about 3.6 percent, less than half of the national rate of 8.2 percent.

Still others argued that federal workers are already taking it on the chin in light of the sequester, the ongoing federal pay freeze, and other factors.

"You've already docked the federal workforce with up to 14 unpaid furlough days," Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said. "You've cut more than $100 billion from their pension and pay. You just sequestered $600 million from the IRS."

Under the bill, H.R. 249, federal workers facing a notice of lien from the IRS would be subject to a six-month process that would allow them to start addressing their debts, or face being fired. It applies to civilian federal employees, not defense-related workers.

Despite the failure of this bill, the House did approve separate legislation that would prevent the government from hiring companies in contracts worth more than $150,000 if they have seriously delinquent tax debts. While Democrats opposed the idea of firing federal workers, they endorsed this second idea from Chaffetz, and said companies should not be able to win federal contracts if they don't pay employee withholding taxes or other taxes.

That bill was passed 407-0.

Two other bills were passed Monday evening:

— H.R. 1162, the GAO Improvement Act, which would boost the ability of the Government Accountability Office to seek information from the government, and increase the authority of the Comptroller General to collect agency records as part of an audit or investigation. Passed 408-0.

— H.R. 1246, the District of Columbia CFO Vacancy Act, to allow the District to install an acting CFO if that position is vacant. Passed by voice vote.

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