Right-wing media labeled the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) plan to garnish the wages of polluters who have failed to pay their fines a "power grab," even though the agency is acting with authority granted to it by decades-old federal law that is already used by 30 other federal agencies.
On July 2, the EPA announced that it would implement a provision of the Debt Collection Improvement Act that would allow the agency to collect delinquent debts from polluters by garnishing their wages without first obtaining a court order. This law, which was approved by an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress and signed into law in 1996, is applicable not just to the EPA but all federal agencies. According to the text of the law and Department of the Treasury guidelines, all federal agencies who collect delinquent debts can "collect money from a debtor's disposable pay by means of administrative wage garnishment to satisfy delinquent nontax debt" without going to the courts first.
Right-wing media outlets like The Washington Times were quick to accuse the EPA of "flexing its regulatory muscle under President Obama" to "unilaterally garnish the paychecks of those accused of violating its rules," because the EPA's proposed rule would no longer require the agency to "obtain a court judgment before garnishing non-Federal wages." The Times framed the announcement as an EPA "power grab," even though the report later pointed out that "every federal agency has the authority to conduct administrative wage garnishment." Fox News was similarly outraged over the EPA's announcement, with Townhall.com news editor Katie Pavlich appearing on The Kelly File to claim that "the EPA now is acting as judge, jury, and executioner" by attempting to adopt the wage garnishment rule.
But Fox's senior judicial analyst, Judge Andrew Napolitano, took it even further on the July 10 edition of Fox & Friends. Napolitano complained that the EPA did not have the authority to garnish wages without a court order because "Congress never authorized it. Congress couldn't authorize it. It blatantly violates the Constitution." Napolitano went on to claim that the EPA's proposed plan was "not legal" because the rule didn't protect debtors' "right to a hearing," and that it was "the president's people" who were behind the rule change:
In reality, Congress did authorize the EPA, and any agency that needs to recover "delinquent nontax debt," to garnish wages when it passed the Debt Collection Improvement Act nearly 20 years ago. The law explicitly allows federal agencies to garnish wages no more than "15 percent of disposable pay" and requires those agencies to provide written notice to debtors regarding the wage garnishment proceedings. Moreover, it isn't just "the president's people" who have adopted a version of the wage garnishment rule to assist them in recovering delinquent debts. A number of federal agencies did so while President George W. Bush was still in office, including the Securities Exchange Commission in 2001 and the Department of Education in 2003.
Napolitano's claim that the law does not provide a "right to a hearing" is also false. The law instructs federal agencies to "provide an opportunity for a hearing" that explains to debtors "the existence or the amount of debt, and ... the terms of the repayment schedule." The Treasury's implementation rules also require agencies to "provide a hearing" at the debtor's request. An EPA spokeswoman told Media Matters that not only do "30 federal agencies use wage garnishment to collect federal debt," but that wages would be garnished "only after EPA attempts to collect delinquent debts and after Treasury attempts to collect delinquent debts through other means. EPA is complying with existing laws by adopting hearing procedures that ensure debtors receive a hearing in order to provide due process."
And while Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade complained about a supposedly outrageous increase in fines for the EPA, which culminated in $1.1 billion in fines in 2013, he left out the fact that the EPA has explained the increase was "primarily due to a record settlement of $1 billion reached with Transocean for its liability for the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill" in 2010.
In other words, if you exclude that $1 billion outlier, the EPA's civil fines in 2013 were in line with agency's fines in 2008 under the Bush administration, when $198 million in civil and criminal fines were assessed. But despite the facts, right-wing media continue to unfairly hold up the EPA under the Obama administration as proof of executive power run amok.