WASHINGTON, March 18, 2010 -- Working for Uncle Sam comes with some great perks, like job stability, posh benefits packages, and in many cases, average salaries that are higher than what the same job pays in the private sector.
That's why Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is irked that nearly 100,000 civilian federal employees owe the IRS $962 million in back taxes. He thinks they should pay up or be fired.
Chaffetz has introduced a bill that calls for the federal government to "ferret out" civilian employees who have "seriously delinquent tax debt" and prevent the hiring of other tax delinquents.
More than 3 percent of the 2.8 million federal civilian employees owed the Treasury unpaid federal income taxes in 2008, according to the IRS. If you include retirees and military service members, the numbers go from nearly 100,000 up to 276,000 current or former workers who owe $3 billion in taxes.
"If you get to the point where the government is putting a lien on their property and they've exhausted their appeals… the right thing to do is fire them as a federal worker," said Chaffetz. "If you're going to take federal tax dollars, you should be paying your federal taxes."
Currently, only IRS employees can be terminated for non-payment of federal income taxes -- a measure Chaffetz wants extended to all federal agencies. The IRS has the lowest level of tax delinquency among its employees than at any other federal agencies, according to the most recent statistics.
But skeptics of Chaffetz's plan argue firing the delinquents en masse circumvents due process and could only hamper efforts to recoup the cash.
Firing federal employees as soon as a lien is imposed by the IRS would be "prior to any due process hearing," said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce.
"We have a system that's in place. For a federal employee, we have the [IRS] garnish their pay at 15 percent -- which is higher than for the regular taxpayer," he said. "We're getting the money back."
Wade Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employees union, said workers should be held to account for back taxes but that Chaffetz's rule would not accommodate the complexities of individual cases.
"There may be other facts and circumstances that you should consider," he said, adding that some individuals may have become delinquent due to sickness or divorce complications or due to a mistake in tax filings. Morrow also said the most serious offenders could face termination under existing guidelines if the tax delinquencies interfere with their jobs.
"Getting them to pay back what they owe is preferable to having them all fired, in which case you're not going to get anything at all," said Morrow.
Chaffetz: Firing Federal Employee Tax Delinquents Aligns With Obama in Principle
Chaffetz conceded the terminations would probably make it harder for the individuals to pay their tax bills and said employees appealing to the IRS or "making a good faith effort" to repay them should be spared.
But he said a broad purge of tax delinquents is still justified and consistent with a principle laid out by President Obama for contractors employed by the federal government.
Earlier this year, Obama ordered federal agencies to terminate contracts with companies who don't pay federal taxes.
"It's simply wrong for companies to take taxpayer dollars and not be taxpayers themselves," the president said Jan. 20. "We need to insist on the same sense of responsibility in Washington that so many of you strive to uphold in your own lives, in your own families and in your own businesses."
Democrats in both the House and the Senate have introduced legislation codifying new rules for federal contractors who don't pay their taxes. Chaffetz is the first and only Republican so far to co-sponsor the House version.
"I think the president's right in the case [of companies] and now I'd like it expanded to federal workers as well," he said. "If you're going to take federal tax dollars, you should be paying your federal taxes."
The bill is currently under consideration by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.