Congress Should Abolish Public Sector Collective Bargaining in Washington, DC
If you want to analyze the causes behind Washington’s dysfunction, collective bargaining within the public sector should top the list. Congress can and should remedy this problem by abolishing collective bargaining for the public sector — both for the nation’s capital and the federal government as a whole.
This was made clear during a recent tax dispute over my business that was entirely caused — and perpetuated — by government incompetence.
In this particular case, the incompetence involved the government of the District of Columbia rather than federal authorities. However, incompetency at both levels of government stems from the same cause: a workforce with virtually guaranteed jobs that faces little to no consequence for poor performance.
Tax Liens Threatened
Roughly three weeks ago, I received another notice from the District’s Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) which claimed that my business owed more than $1,000 in unpaid franchise taxes for 2022. It also threatened to place a tax lien on my property, seize my assets, and/or “publicize [my] liability on the Internet,” among other threats made to satisfy my supposed debt:
That sounds very intimidating — undoubtedly because it is designed to intimidate. But there’s one little detail that OTR neglected to mention when breaking out supposed unpaid obligations for 2022: In 2021, my firm overpaid its franchise taxes by a significant amount of $10,631. D.C.’s tax authorities admitted on their own website that I overpaid my 2021 taxes, which would more than wipe out any supposed liability from last year:
Why didn’t D.C. authorities apply our 2021 overpayment to the 2022 obligations? The person I spoke with on the phone about it claimed OTR did not have a Form FR-500 (a tax registration form) on file for my firm, so it could not apply the 2021 overpayment to our 2022 obligations. However, I filed that form with OTR when I first established the business, back in March 2016. I even have the notice from OTR acknowledging receipt of said form:
To sum up: D.C. tax authorities have threatened me with asset seizures because 1) someone didn’t process my firm’s 2021 return correctly and 2) the tax office — you know, the ones that treat you like a criminal whenever you don’t hold onto a file or a receipt — lost a form that I have had on file for more than seven years.
I reached out to the D.C. authorities twice about this matter prior to receiving the Notice of Enforcement Action threatening tax liens and asset seizures. In both cases, I got exactly nowhere.
On the afternoon of June 7, I called and spoke with an OTR employee, who told me about the supposed paperwork problem preventing my 2021 overpayment from going toward my firm’s 2022 obligations. She told me to fill out an(other) FR-500 online.
The representative said she would go back into the computer system and apply the 2021 overpayment to my 2022 obligations to end the dispute. But she never followed up on this promise, and neither did any of her colleagues before sending out the second notice.
Even before this, I sent an email on May 19 explaining that the office’s notice of unpaid tax liability omitted my significant 2021 overpayment. On July 6, nearly seven weeks after I sent that message, I finally received a reply:
Thank you for contacting eServices,
After reviewing your account, we see that it is assigned to the Collection Department. Please reach out to them directly at 202-724-5045 for assistance.
Translation: Because we sat on your message for so long, it’s been referred to Collections, so we don’t have to do anything about it. Go talk to someone who cares.
And while these officials were busy not responding to the May 19 message, the interest and penalties they claimed I owed rose from $135.80 to $210.70. In other words, the incompetence of D.C. officials isn’t just hypocritical, it’s also lucrative — the longer they wait to respond, the more they can over-charge people in penalties.
Government Jobs as a Protection Racket
No doubt the D.C. government — and the federal government — have some competent people trying to do their best. But the incentives are absolutely tilted in the wrong direction.
D.C.’s Office of Tax and Revenue makes no attempt to respond to customers in a timely manner, because many of its employees believe they have a constitutional right to work only five to six hours per day, four to five days per week — with an hour break for lunch.
And of course, no one seems terribly concerned about the fact that customers will wait weeks or months to get their cases resolved — and could incur more penalties as a result.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the structure of government, and specifically public sector collective bargaining. At this point, government amounts to something like a protection racket, whereby D.C. employees can do just about whatever they want — provided that they give kickbacks (i.e., campaign contributions) to Mayor Muriel Bowser, D-AFSCME, and other Democrats via union dues.
I emailed Bowser’s office on Friday, asking about my case, and specifically how the mayor supports accountability for D.C. employees. Among other things, I asked 1) whether late penalties would apply to D.C. government offices the way those offices apply penalties to D.C. residents and 2) whether the District of Columbia would take action to publicize incompetent employees, the same way it threatened to publicize my supposed unpaid taxes.
I never received an acknowledgment, but late on Friday, someone from the Office of Tax and Revenue responded. He said the underlying dispute would get resolved in D.C.’s tax records. And he claimed that “this situation is being reviewed internally to identify areas to offer better customer service experiences.”
Call me a cynic, but that response sounds like a polite way of saying that nothing, or next to nothing, will happen due to my hellacious experience at the hands of D.C. tax authorities. As a result, I have already demanded public records and my tax files to try to generate the kind of accountability D.C. authorities appear to have little interest in pursuing.
Of course, Congress, which has ultimate jurisdiction over D.C., can more readily solve the matter. The House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., can explore what seems like some serious structural problems within D.C.’s tax office. And when Republicans regain control of Congress, they can fix one of the biggest structural problems by ending collective bargaining among public sector workers — in the nation’s capital, and throughout the federal government.
What Public Service Means
One of the best cases for ending collective bargaining for government employees comes from (of all people) Franklin Roosevelt. In an August 1937 letter to the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, FDR wrote that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” because, in the case of federal workers, “the employer is the whole people.”
Roosevelt’s words proved prescient because they hint at one of the main problems with our self-government: the distance, both actual and perceived, between the rulers and the ruled. That feeling of disempowerment leads many Americans to believe their own government is actively working against their interests. I felt the same way when D.C. tax officials seemed little interested in responding to a problem (which they created) in the prompt, professional manner one would expect from almost any other business.
Ending collective bargaining for government employees would begin to reverse this trend and create the culture of accountability our government so desperately needs.
It would go a long way toward restoring our democracy and making “We the People” whole again.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.