Lawmakers pushed back Tuesday against the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to garnish the paychecks of accused polluters, advancing a bill that would block the new authority.
The House Committee on Appropriations approved the countermeasure as a policy rider on a $30.2 billion spending bill for natural resources agencies, including the EPA, the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service.
The amendment by Rep. Tom Graves, Georgia Republican, passed the committee in a voice vote, signaling an absence of strong opposition, if not support for prohibiting the EPA from claiming authority to garnish wages to collect fines and penalties without a court order.
“This proposed rule is another example of EPA overreach. It allows the EPA to effectively serve as a debt collection agency and deprives Americans of due process,” Mr. Graves said, urging fellow members of the Appropriations Committee to approve his amendment.
The measure has a long way to go to become law. After clearing the Republican-run House, it would have to survive negotiations with the Democratic-led Senate, and then the entire spending bill, which also would slash EPA’s 2015 budget by $717 million or 9 percent, could face a veto by President Obama.
The backlash against the EPA comes as the agency is flexing its regulatory muscle in the Obama administration, collecting more fines each year and hitting individuals with costly penalties for violating environmental rules — including recently threatening fines of $75,000 per day against Wyoming welder Andy Johnson for building a pond on his rural property in violation of the 1972 Clean Water Act.
SEE ALSO: EPA push to garnish polluters’ paychecks hits Republican roadblock
The EPA quietly floated the new collection authority July 2 in a notice in the Federal Register, saying federal law allows it “to garnish non-Federal wages to collect delinquent non-tax debts owed the United States without first obtaining a court order.”
The agency cited 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 insisted that the agency is required to participate Treasury’s debt-collection program.
Critics said the threat of garnishing wages would be a powerful incentive for people to agree to expensive settlements rather than fight EPA charges.
Mr. Graves blasted the EPA for announcing it as a “direct final rule” that would take effect automatically Sept. 2, unless the EPA receives adverse public comments by Aug. 1.
“EPA has said that the rule was not subject to review because it is ‘not a significant regulatory action.’ I am shocked that they would try to fast track such a rule,” the congressman said.
Last week, three Republican senators submitted an adverse comment on the rule, saying it puts too much power in the hands of “an agency prone to regulatory abuses.”
The letter was signed by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Wyoming Republican Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi. They demanded the EPA immediately withdraw the rule.
But EPA officials said the agency would wait until the end of the Aug. 1 public comment period before making a decision.