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EPA pulls back from plan to garnish paychecks

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Environmental Protection Agency bowed to fierce criticism Wednesday and announced that it had hit the breaks on a fast-tracked plan to collect fines by garnishing paychecks of accused polluters.

The agency, which has come under withering attacks from Republican lawmakers for attempting a "power grab," said it still intended to pursue the new authority to garnish wages without a court order. But now it will follow a more typical and longer review process.

Opponents of the wage-garnish rule applauded EPA's decision.

"It's about time this abuse-prone agency listened to Congress and backtrack on a rule that was clearly an egregious power grab to garnish private citizens' wages," said Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who had battled the proposed rule.

But the EPA vowed to press on with its plan to snatch fines directly out of American's paychecks.

"Like certain other rules, EPA's rule was published in a manner that it would automatically become final unless the agency received a comment. Because the agency has received comment, we will consider any comments submitted during the comment period before finalizing the rule," an EPA official said.

The EPA quietly floated the new collection power July 2 in a notice in the Federal Register, announcing it as a "direct final rule" that would take effect automatically Sept. 2, unless the EPA receives adverse public comments by Aug. 1.

The Environmental Protection Agency bowed to fierce criticism Wednesday and announced that it had hit the brakes on a fast-tracked plan to collect fines by garnishing paychecks of accused polluters.

The agency, which has come under withering attacks from Republican lawmakers for attempting a "power grab," said it still intended to pursue the authority to garnish wages without a court order. But now it will follow a more typical and longer review process.

Opponents of the wage garnishment rule applauded EPA's decision.

"It's about time this abuse-prone agency listened to Congress and backtracked on a rule that was clearly an egregious power grab to garnish private citizens' wages," said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who battled the proposed rule.

But the EPA vowed to press on with its plan to snatch fines directly out of Americans' paychecks.

"Like certain other rules, EPA's rule was published in a manner that it would automatically become final unless the agency received a comment. Because the agency has received comment, we will consider any comments submitted during the comment period before finalizing the rule," an EPA official said.

The EPA quietly floated the collection power July 2 in a notice in the Federal Register, announcing it as a "direct final rule" that would take effect automatically Sept. 2 unless the EPA received adverse public comments by Aug. 1.

In response to adverse comments, the EPA has changed the "direct final rule" to a regular proposed rule and extended the comment period until Sept. 2, the official said.

The EPA's abrupt move follows an adverse comment letter submitted last week by Mr. Vitter and Sen. John Barrasso, a senior member of the committee, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, both Wyoming Republicans.

"The public also has the ability to comment on proposed EPA rules," Mr. Enzi said in response to the rule change. "It's important for people to let this agency know it's not OK for it to take away their freedoms."

The wage-garnishing scheme also faces a legislative challenge, with the House Appropriations Committee approving a bill Tuesday by Rep. Tom Graves, Georgia Republican, that would have blocked the EPA from finalizing the rule.

The backlash against the EPA is occurring as the agency flexes its regulatory muscle under President Obama, collecting more fines each year and hitting individuals with costly penalties for violating environmental rules. The agency recently threatened fines of $75,000 per day against Wyoming welder Andy Johnson for building a pond on his rural property in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The agency claimed it had to claim the wage-garnishment authority under the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 that centralized federal collection operations under the Treasury Department, which oversees garnishments of wages or tax refund checks.

EPA officials have insisted that the agency is required to participate in Treasury's debt-collection program.

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