It was tax day for the nation Monday and on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican lawmakers sought to hold accountable the small percentage of federal workers and contractors who have not squared their tab with Uncle Sam.
The House voted unanimously to pass a bill that would deny federal employment to contractors who are seriously delinquent on their taxes. But Democrats blocked a second bill that would have ended employment for federal employees who have not paid their taxes.
"I believe both bills would tell the American people that we hold ourselves to the standard that the American people, the American taxpayer, expect us to," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Both the IRS and the Government Accountability Office track delinquent taxes owed by those who work in some capacity for the federal government.
The GAO calculated this year that 312,000 government contractors owe $3.5 billion in back taxes and some have been delinquent for years despite owning yachts, vacation homes and luxury cars.
Among federal workers, 107,000 people own more than $1 billion in back taxes, according to 2011 IRS data, which is the most recent available.
"Most taxpayers file accurate tax returns and pay them on time," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a sponsor of the bill aimed at delinquent federal employees. "But unfortunately there are a few bad apples out there who despite all the processes in place, they still choose to thumb their noses at the rest of us."
While Democrats were eager to punish federal contractors for ignoring their tax bill, helping to pass the legislation 407-0, they argued that using the same standard for federal employees would be unfair.
The bill was voted on under special rules that banned amendments and limited debate but would have required a two-thirds majority to pass. It fell short, with 250 members voting for it and 159 against. Local lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and D.C. lined up to argue against the legislation, defending the thousands of constituents who work for federal agencies.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., argued that federal employees have been punished enough under furloughs required by the $85 billion in cuts that are part of the sequester.
"This bill would virtually have no effect on revenue because there are so few civil servants who are delinquent," Moran said. "This is not about bringing down the debt, it's about threatening federal workers and singling them out by suggesting there is some kind of endemic problem when there isn't."
According to the IRS, 3.2 percent of federal workers are delinquent on their taxes. The IRS said among the general public, 8.6 percent of taxpayers are considered delinquent.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., whose district includes the Social Security Administration and other federal offices, said there are already procedures in place for collecting back taxes, including wage garnishment.
The bill addressing federal contractors who are delinquent on taxes now heads to the Senate, where in past years it has been ignored despite support from President Obama.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not respond to a request for comment on whether he plans to take up the measure.