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EPA withdraws proposed rule to garnish non-federal wages



Missouri Correspondent


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. EPA last week withdrew a wage garnishment rule, proposed July 2. The withdrawal came after the proposal received adverse comments, including a formal letter of opposition from three Republican senators.

Notice of the EPA’s withdrawal came in a July 17 announcement in the Federal Register. The proposed rule, "Administra-tive Wage Garnishment," would have given the EPA wage garnishment power under provisions of the Debt Collection Improvement Act (DCIA).

"The direct final rule will allow the EPA to garnish non-federal wages to collect delinquent non-tax debts owed the U.S. without first obtaining a court order," stated the proposal. A "direct final rule" can be implemented only if the proposing agency receives no adverse comments.

Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming issued a formal adverse comment in a July 10 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "We believe the direct rule represents an inappropriate effort to avoid preliminary judicial scrutiny of EPA garnishment proceedings," they wrote.

Republican House members also submitted comments of opposition. Adverse comments to the EPA proposal were inevitable, said Roger McOewen, director of the Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.

"Of course they will receive many negative comments, especially from the agricultural sector," said McOewen, before the withdrawal. Crop farmers, rural landowners and livestock operations could potentially be affected under the rule, he said.

The Republican senators made farming and land rights concerns a focus of their letter. "EPA’s decision to give itself the authority to garnish wages without first obtaining a court order compounds the challenge for individuals who face ruinous fines from the agency," they said.

They cited well-publicized examples of a West Virginia farmer receiving possible civil fines for alleged stormwater runoff contamination, as well as a Wyoming landowner facing possible EPA fines for a pond construction.

An EPA spokesperson defended the proposed rule this month, stating the proposal met legal stipulations.

"Under the administrative wage garnishment provisions of the DCIA, federal agencies may garnish administratively up to 15 percent of the disposable pay of a debtor to satisfy a delinquent non-tax debt owed to the United States," stated the EPA in its Federal Register announcement.

The adverse comments from the senators did not dispute the authority given the EPA by the 1996 law. Rather, they objected to the potential bypass of due process rights that might occur when the EPA garnished wages.

McOewen said the proposed rule would have given EPA power to garnish wages before an appeal of any adverse determination and other court processes. "Not even IRS can do that," he noted.

An agency receiving adverse comments to a "direct final rule" can respond to the comments during the standard administrative rulemaking process. The EPA’s intent to pursue its former proposal under the standard process is not yet known.