Debate Forum, 4/2

Debate Forum Center: Pay your tax or get the axe

 By Alex Culpepper

As part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collects money for the U.S. government in the form of tax payments from citizens. In many cases, people send in their tax bills around the time of the tax return filing deadline in April every year. For various reasons, though, some people do not pay their taxes on time and some do not pay them for a long time, leading to tax collection actions ranging from mild reminders to potentially life-changing enforcement procedures. One of the more severe actions taken against delinquent taxpayers is the tax lien on property and assets, which means the IRS can use property and assets as collateral in order to retrieve unpaid tax money. A possible new way of securing those funds, at least from federal employees, may be to deny or terminate employment based on unpaid tax status.

On March 20, the U.S. House adopted H.R. 249, The Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act of 2013, a bill that would make it lawful to terminate and deny federal employment to those with “serious delinquent tax debt” who are under tax liens. According to house members backing the bill, the legislation is one of several bills offered as a response to what they believe is a lack of faith citizens have with the government’s attempts to control waste and abuse of taxpayer money. This bill has support in congress, but it also has some opposition.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), says the “intent” of the bill is to ensure people are making a “good faith effort” to pay their taxes. He says that it should be considered motivation to get them to pay, rather than to punish them by firing. Supporters of the bill claim this legislation targets a significant problem because the delinquent taxpayers in question are responsible for about $1 billion of tax debt. Supporters further contend that the new law would not apply to all delinquent taxpayers – just those under tax liens.

One problem opponents of the legislation have is the bill focuses solely on federal employees and singles them out for “special targeting” and “demonizes” them unnecessarily. Opponents also say they are unsure why the bill should apply only to federal workers when their rate of tax delinquency is much lower than the public at large. Further, opponents believe the bill is a poor way to settle delinquent tax bills because it would be much harder to get money from someone who is unemployed. Finally, opponents claim laws are already in place to retrieve back taxes, leaving such a bill unnecessary.

H.R. 249 comes at a time when federal workers are under a pay rate freeze and may be subject to furloughs. Regardless, the IRS still must collect taxes. Supporters believe the bill will serve as a motivational tool to get people to pay their taxes. Opponents have concerns because they think the bill is an unnecessary and illogical solution for collecting unpaid debt. The bill still has some obstacles to clear before becoming law.

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

The federal government has proposed a new bill to retrieve unpaid taxes from federal workers. Should the government be able to deny or terminate employment based
on a person’s unpaid tax bill?

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

The federal government has proposed a new bill to retrieve unpaid taxes from federal workers. Should the government be able to deny or terminate employment based
on a person’s unpaid tax bill?

Debate Left: Benny almost trips over his neocortex

By Ben Tomkins
I almost did it! Christ, I’m an intelligent person and I almost fell into the most syrupy sweet pitfall of all logical thinking that ruins the dream of a free, informed electorate. It’s the fallacy that plagues private conservative dining room tables and blindsides minority candidates when voters are left to the privacy of electoral anonymity.

I am speaking of the “it feels good enough to say that I will grant myself intellectual permission to ignore reality” statement. Oh, the NeoCons loved this one. Built eight years of the Bush presidency out of it as a matter of fact. The same principle is in place with the idea that you can fire federal employees because they are delinquent on their taxes. It sounds so good. If federal employees aren’t paying their taxes, why should they be allowed to work for the agency to which they are indebted? On the surface, it seems to follow perfectly and also has that magical quality of tapping into the latent frustration so many Americans feel about the financial state of our country – which, despite what FoxNews seems to think, is actually doing gangbusters – and more importantly gives them a target for their incriminating index finger.

So, I’m reading the question for this week and, after a cursory glance and thought, I actually replied to my editor that I was prepared to write that it’s OK for the government to fire people simply because they are behind on their taxes. No, really, I was going to take that to print! It just felt right in the way I described above, and thank the Lord and Easter Zombie Jesus that my editor told me to give the other side a think in order to make this a debate, because my wife would have had every reason to mercilessly heckle me upstairs to the couch for three or four days for basically turning into a belligerent, reactionary, ignorant redneck like Wayne LaPierre.

So, no, you can’t go around firing government employees because they are behind on their taxes. Why, Ben? Glad you asked. It’s actually very simple:

1. Despite the fact that it sounds good, the law intentionally singles out government employees rather than applying to everyone in the country. We don’t really do that unless you live in – oh my GOD! – a red state like Alabama. I love Alabama! It’s like a bank vault box full of constitutional travesties and all you have to do is fill out a withdraw slip and help yourself to as much loot as you can carry off.

2. You can’t fire someone who’s doing perfectly excellent work behind their desk but has personal problems. Here’s what I consider a virtually analogous situation: Let’s say your best server at your steak house has the horrible personality disorder known as “raw foodism.” Now, that’s pretty bad. It’s basically the gustatory equivalent of being Kim Jong Un, but instead of being fat and hanging out with stupid basketball players you have jaundice. Of course, there are many reasons to fire this person. Reasons like, “I hate you” and “because it’s bacon, dammit,” but if it’s not affecting their work, then you can’t point to it and throw them out the door.

You see where I’m going with this? Your tax problems have nothing to do with your ability to do your job. One is a personal problem and the other is what you get paid to do. Once we start firing people for private issues that don’t affect the quality of their work, we start firing them because they’re gay. Not even the military does that any more.

I guess what I really learned from all this is that the Republican party is just as desperate as ever to reclaim the good old days when they could say something like “Mexicans aren’t people” and a guttural groan of approval would sweep them into office. It’s pathetic, really, that they’re still lobbing those darts at an American public that’s, frankly, just moved on. And to think, I almost went for it. God, I feel old …

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. 

Reach Ben Tompkins at

Debate Right: An act of wisdom

There you go again! House bill (HR 828), The Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act, provides that federal employees who are federal tax delinquents, and who have not made a good faith effort to be compliant, be fired from their jobs. The IRS reports that nearly 100,000 federal civilian employees owed $1 billion in unpaid federal income taxes in 2009. While the number of delinquent federal employees has remained fairly constant since 2004, the amount owed has increased nearly 70 percent.

Apologists for the tax cheats are simply following other well-known tax dodgers like Tim Geitner, who served as chief fiscal officer of the U.S. for four years under Barack Obama. You talk about fairness. The message from tax cheat apologists is very clear: If you are a federal employee, you can enjoy special privileges not enjoyed by ordinary citizens. That includes getting away with violating tax law. The 16th Amendment to the Constitution providing for the federal income tax was composed by progressives, but like most progressive causes, is enforced selectively. Thus, if you are a friend of government – if Tim can get away with it, why not me? – you might anticipate that you are different from the lesser citizens, employees in the private sector. According to the Cato Institute, in 2010 the average federal civilian worker earned twice as much in total compensation, including benefits, compared to the average private sector employee.

Total taxes annually collected by the federal government amount to $2.3 trillion with unpaid taxes amounting to $114.2 billion or five percent of revenues. In a country struggling to pay its expenses and debt, this is not an insignificant sum. The IRS reports that less than four-tenths of one percent of federal employees could be fired and that the delinquency rate is “just” 3.62 percent of federal employees. Does this then justify letting them off the hook?

Opposition to this very sensible law seems to be another example of what I would call “ego-centric government.”  “Come work for the government, that is where your future lies,” seems to be the operant cue, and not in a private sector creating new opportunities and growth in the national product. But kudos to bureaucracy and more power to the state. I believe these messages are not new, but are part of the failed ash heap of history so graphically described by Ronald Reagan. The Politburo enjoyed special privileges, like special shopping marts and special schools, so then why not special tax advantages?

The excuse for not pursuing federal employee tax cheats, apart from Tim Geitner, is that they are less likely to repay their debt. Why could the same thing not be said of Wesley Snipes, who was sentenced to three years in federal prison, or the founder of “Girls Gone Wild,” who is facing a ten-year sentence?

For all the debates about fairness in the tax code, tax reform and simplification such as fair tax or flat tax, not much is really being accomplished. Americans, despite the 2012 election, are fed up with special privilege and an uneven playing field enjoyed by the rich and famous. Examples include $430 million dollars in tax “extenders” for Hollywood during the fiscal cliff deal and exemptions from ObamaCare. A multitude of unions and other “friends of the chosen,” including Congress, may simply opt out of the onerous regulations facing the majority of Americans. And what about the disastrous subprime mortgage fiasco? TARP bailout money resulted in healthy profits for Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, those companies chiefly responsible for the crisis. Despite this, only 25 executives from Citigroup, Bank of America and five other bailed out companies had their salaries capped by the Obama pay czar.

The message is clear: if you are a government employee or a friend of Washington, D.C., you can expect special treatment.

Dr. Westbrock has been in private medical practice for 35 years. He was the Republican candidate for the U.S House of Representatives in 1994 and 1996. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject of health care reform and health care policy. He can be reached at

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