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EPA claims it has the power to garnish wages without court approval

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FILE: June 2, 2014: EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at a news conference in Washington, D.C. (REUTERS)

The Environmental Protection Agency has quietly claimed that it has the authority to unilaterally garnish the wages of individuals who have been accused of violating its rules. 

According to The Washington Times, the agency announced the plan to enhance its purview last week in a notice in the Federal Register. The notice claimed that federal law allows the EPA to "garnish non-Federal wages to collect delinquent non-tax debts owed the United States without first obtaining a court order." 

The push remains up in the air, however, as the agency says any "adverse comments" would prevent the EPA from moving forward -- and some criticism has emerged in recent days.

Absent that, the rule could take effect Sept. 2. The EPA said the rule was not subject to review because it was not a "significant regulatory action." 

The EPA has claimed this new authority by citing the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, which gives all federal agencies the power to conduct administrative wage garnishment, provided that the agency allows for hearings at which debtors can challenge the amount or the terms of a repayment schedule. 

In response to the report, an EPA spokeswoman also pointed to a Department of Treasury rule from 2011 outlining debt collection for various agencies, including the EPA. 

"Administrative Wage Garnishment (AWG) would apply only after EPA attempts to collect delinquent debts and after Treasury attempts to collect delinquent debts through other means," the spokeswoman told FoxNews.com. The spokeswoman added that the agency would provide notice "prior to any action," giving the debtor the opportunity to "review, contest or enter into a repayment agreement."

The plan has drawn protests from conservatives, including Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who told The Washington Times, "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.”

The conservative Heritage Foundation claimed that the rule gives the EPA "unbridled discretion" over the process of challenging fines. David Addington, group vice president for research at Heritage, told the Times that the rule not only puts the burden of proof on the debtor, rather than the agency, but also allows the EPA to decide whether a debtor even gets a chance to present a defense before picking whomever it chooses to serve as a hearing officer.

The amount of money the EPA has collected in fines has increased steadily since President Obama took office. In 2012, the agency took in $252 million in fines, up from just $96 million in 2009. 

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