WASHINGTON -- Federal agencies should withhold benefits and new jobs from workers who fail to pay court-ordered child support, a House panel was told yesterday.
"I think it's very important that the federal government not be an unwitting sanctuary or protector of deadbeat parents," Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told a subcommittee of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee.
The subcommittee on compensation and employee benefits, led by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., is considering a measure to tighten collection of child support by prohibiting the government from paying benefits, or employing or making loans to federal workers who owe back child support.
"The federal sector, both in its responsibility for federal benefits for millions of Americans and as the largest employer in the country, is the most critical actor in solidifying national enforcement of child support," Ms. Norton said.
In Maryland, nearly 300,000 people work for the federal government.
Ms. Norton said if the federal workplace adopts a tough new child-support collection system, private businesses will fall in line. The proposal would make government employers a pivotal part of the child-support collection system and toughen measures in the private sector.
Under the bill, federal workers under a court order to pay back child support would lose money from their veterans, black lung and federal death benefits -- as well as worker compensation awards. The measure also would speed the legal payment of back child support from federal retirement funds.
The Office of Personnel Management stopped short of endorsing this provision, saying parents who are struggling to pay child support will have an even harder time doing so without their government benefits.
"The effect of the bill, by barring payment of a benefit from which a garnishment would be taken, would actually be to prevent payment of the child support," said OPM deputy director Lorraine A. Green.
Currently, the federal government can withhold wages and retirement benefits from employees who fail to pay back child support and alimony. To date, 2,000 orders have been filed against former government employees, requiring them to use their retirement benefits to make those overdue payments, Ms. Green said. Similarly, 70,000 orders have been filed against current federal employees, she added.
In Maryland, parents pay $200 million in child support each year, but another $500 million goes unpaid, said Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md.
Maryland's child support default rate ranges between 39 and 49 percent compared with the state's 3 percent default rate on car payments.
Another provision of the bill would require the government to screen potential hires for child-support violations.
Any potential hire who has failed to make a court-ordered payment worth more than $1,000 -- and is making no court-arranged effort to repay the back child support -- would be denied federal employment. If hired, workers would be required to pay overdue child support before collecting their government paychecks.
The government still can hire parents who owe back child support, but the employees must agree to a repayment plan issued by an administrative judge, said Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., a co-sponsor of the bill.