The Environmental Protection Agency has quietly floated a rule claiming authority to bypass the courts and unilaterally garnish paychecks of those accused of violating its rules, a power currently used by agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service.
The EPA has been flexing its regulatory muscle under President Obama, collecting more fines each year and threatening individuals with costly penalties for violating environmental rules. In one case, the agency has threatened fines of up to $75,000 per day on Wyoming homeowner Andy Johnson for building a pond on his rural property.
“The EPA has a history of overreaching its authority. It seems like once again the EPA is trying to take power it doesn’t have away from American citizens,” Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said when he learned of the EPA’s wage garnishment scheme.
Others questioned why the EPA decided to strengthen its collection muscle at this time.
Critics said the threat of garnishing wages would be a powerful incentive for people to agree to expensive settlements rather than fight EPA charges.
EPA officials did not respond to repeated questions by The Washington Times about why they thought it was necessary to garnish people’s wages.
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The EPA announced the plan last week 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.
Under the law, every federal agency has the authority to conduct administrative wage garnishment, provided the agency adopts approved rules for conducting hearings where debtors can challenge the amount of debt or terms of repayment schedule, a Treasury official said.
Still, the rule would give the EPA sweeping authority to dictate how and whether Americans could dispute fines and penalties, even as the amount of EPA fines collected from individuals, businesses and local governments steadily increase.
The amount of fines raked in by the agency has jumped from $96 million in 2009 to $252 million in 2012, a more than 160 percent increase, according to EPA annual reports.
Putting the collection powers on a fast track, the agency announced it in the Federal Register as a “direct final rule” that would take effect automatically Sept. 2, unless the EPA receives adverse public comments by Aug. 1.
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The EPA said it deemed the action as not a “significant regulatory action” and therefore not subject to review.
The negative reactions began almost immediately.
In a comment letter submitted to the EPA, the conservative Heritage Foundation faulted the rule for giving the government “unbridled discretion” in controlling the process for challenging fines and wage garnishment, such as dictating the site of a hearing without consideration of the time and travel expense placed on the accused debtor.
The rule allows the EPA to decide whether a debtor gets a chance to present a defense and then picks whomever it chooses to serve as a hearing officer, even someone not trained as an administrative law judge, wrote David S. Addington, group vice president for research at The Heritage Foundation.
It also puts the burden of proof on the debtor, not the EPA, he said.
The EPA has been on the front lines of the battle over Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda, including issuing proposed rules that would require coal-fired power plants to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent over 15 years.
Critics say it will cause massive increases in the cost of electricity, lead to power shortages and eliminate jobs, while making scant impact on the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted worldwide.
The agency has been a magnet for criticism over new rules on things such as wood-burning stoves and small streams or ponds on private land, including waterways on farms and golf courses.