WASHINGTON -- Calling debt-ridden federal workers "deadbeats," Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., D-Ind., urged support for a bill he has been proposing for 14 years: a measure to allow courts to garnishee the wages of government employees who haven't paid their bills.
Since 1977, Jacobs said, he has been the "lone voice" complaining about sovereign immunity, the doctrine that protects federal workers from lawsuits. Now he's taking advantage of all the furor over recent controversies in Congress over bad-check writing and questionable perks.
"Everything the government does now is suspect," he said. "Obviously this is the time to get people's attention."
The Supreme Court established sovereign immunity more than 100 years ago, making it impossible to sue federal employees to collect bad debts. That rule applies to members of Congress as well as government officials and support staff members.
"So, if you don't like to pay your bills, get elected to Congress or the presidency, nominated to the Supreme Court or go to work for the government as a clerk," said Jacobs, who chairs a House Ways and Means subcommittee.
The Credit Research Center at Purdue University estimates that federal employees compile bad debts totaling $1.2 billion each year. That's money the government can't tax, which means a loss of $300 million to the U.S. Treasury, according to the research center.
Department stores, health-care providers and small businesses are "left holding the bag when someone doesn't pay the bills," said Carlton Fish, spokesman for the American Creditors Association, which represents the nation's collection agencies.
Fish noted that the U.S. Postal Service, which is not solely a federal agency and is not protected by sovereign immunity, garnishees only 2 percent of its work force.
"A lot of that is due to the fact they know they can be garnisheed, so they pay their debts," Fish said.
"We don't think this is a wise move," said Diane S. Witiak, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees.
"We think there should be studies to determine if this law is really needed," Witiak said. "Our biggest concern is what the measure would cost."