Pay-garnishee bill introducedWASHINGTON -- Federal workers...

Newswatch ...on federal workers

February 06, 1991|By Stacey Evers | Stacey Evers,States News Service

WASHINGTON PACMEN MIFFED: — Pay-garnishee bill introduced

WASHINGTON -- Federal workers who don't pay off their debts could have a rude awakening if Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is successful in his push for legislation to make them subject to wage garnishments.

Craig has introduced a bill that would eliminate special treatment of federal workers and, he said, "remove a potential threat to the ability of the vast majority of honest government workers to obtain credit."

To garnishee the wages of a worker for a private employer, a creditor can get a court order directing the employer to turn over a portion of a debtor's paycheck to satisfy a court judgment.

Federal workers now may avoid having their wages garnisheed through the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which prohibits the federal government from being sued without its consent.

Some federal workers use the immunity doctrine as a "shield" to avoid repayment, Craig said, adding, "This is simply not fair and must be changed."

Craig estimated that in 1988 federal employees owed more than $177.5 million on defaulted student loans, adding that their total obligations amount to more than $1 billion.

The senator based his information on a 1988 House Post Office and Civil Service Committee hearing on garnisheeing federal workers' wages, according to Craig's spokesman, John Barclay.

In the same year, federal workers were responsible for 2.4 percent of all unpaid debts in the United States, according to hearing documents.

Craig believes that today's declining economy will force lenders to scrutinize applications carefully before making loans.

Because federal workers can ignore overdue payments without fear of having wages attached, lenders may be reluctant to lend to them, he said.

The situation could be "terribly unfair to the honest employee," Craig said. "But lenders have virtually no other way to protect themselves from the minority of dishonest ones."

Leaders of union political action committees weren't pleased with President Bush's call last week to get rid of PACs as a part of a campaign finance reform package.

"Although it's something we're accustomed to hearing, we hate hearing it in the State of the Union address," said Janice LaChance, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees and director of AFGE PAC.

PACs are groups set up by business, labor or other organized special interests to channel campaign money to candidates friendly to their cause.

PACs are "one of the few ways that the average citizen can contribute $5 or $10 a year and have an impact on the political process," LaChance said, predicting that the proposal could alienate thousands of union members.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, speaking in the Democratic response to the president's address, also said he would be willing to give up PACs -- not a good sign, LaChance said.

"I don't know that Mitchell's ever said that publicly. It was startling to me," she said. "To have it in that kind of prominent setting tells me they must be pretty committed to that course."

But Susan Holliday, spokeswoman for the National Treasury Employees Union, said Bush's announcement has been made enough that the impact of the threat may have worn off.

Cash on the side:

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this week takes up proposed changes in a new law that forbids most federal employees from accepting money for speeches or articles.

The committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on a bill submitted by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, that would allow employees below the GS-16 level to be paid for their writings and speeches on matters not related to their jobs.

The ban on honorariums, part of the Ethics in Government Act of 1989, would be lifted as long as the offer to write or speak didn't come from an organization with an interest in the employee's job performance. Also, the bill would limit payment to $2,000 an article or speech.

Federal employees have complained that the law unfairly keeps them from earning extra money or exercising their right of free speech.

Speakers at the hearing are to include Stephen D. Potts, director of the Office of Government Ethics, and representatives from NTEU, AFGE, the National Federation of Federal Employees, Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many witnesses will make a second appearance tomorrow at a similar hearing for the Administrative Law and Governmental Relations subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-8th, whose Montgomery County district home to thousands of federal employees, is expected to testify in favor of the measure.

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