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Doug C.
Republican GA 9

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  • Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act

    by Representative Doug Collins

    Posted on 2015-11-30

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    COLLINS of Georgia. Mr. Speaker, I thank the chairman for yielding and his work in bringing this to the floor, and I appreciate it.

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 3279, the Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act. I introduced this legislation with a bipartisan group of cosponsors to provide additional transparency and oversight of taxpayer dollars awarded under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

    I want to thank all of the original cosponsors of this legislation for their support. In particular, my friend from Tennessee, Steve Cohen, a member of the Judiciary Committee, but also a special thank you also to Cynthia Lummis from Wyoming, who has been an advocate of this legislation. I just want to thank her for her tireless work and leadership on this issue as we move forward.

    [[Page H8425]] H.R. 3279 passed the Judiciary Committee on a voice vote on October 27, 2015. Almost identical legislation passed both the Judiciary Committee and the full House on a voice vote last Congress.

    The bill reinstates needed transparency and accountability measures to ensure that the Equal Access to Justice Act is helping individuals, retirees, veterans, and small businesses as intended.

    Congress originally passed the Equal Access to Justice Act in 1980 to remove a barrier to justice for those with limited access to the resources it takes to sue the Federal Government and to recover attorneys' fees and costs that go along with such suits. The law was written to provide citizens with the opportunity to challenge or defend against unreasonable government actions where they otherwise might be deterred by large legal expenses.

    To be eligible for payment under EAJA, an individual's net worth must be less than $2 million and a business or organization must have a net worth of less than $7 million, although the cap does not apply to certain tax-exempt organizations.

    The Equal Access to Justice Act was intended to address the David and Goliath scenario where wronged citizens have to go to court and face the Federal Government's vast financial and legal resources. It is past time that we ensure this law is working for citizens in need and for taxpayers alike.

    Payments of EAJA attorneys' fees come from the budget of the agency whose action gave rise to the claim. While the original Equal Access to Justice Act legislation included a requirement to track payments and report to Congress annually, Congress and the agencies halted tracking and reporting of payments made through the Equal Access to Justice Act in 1995.

    A Government Accountability Office report indicated that without any direction to track payments, most agencies simply do not do it, and Congress and taxpayers are unable to exercise oversight over these funds. In fact, we only have anecdotal evidence about how much we are spending on attorneys' fees, the agencies paying out on these fees, and what types of claims are being covered.

    This is simple, commonsense transparency.

    Since 1995, there has been no comprehensive Federal report on the total amount of fees awarded under the Equal Access to Justice Act. We are sorely behind on our oversight responsibilities in this area, and H.R. 3279 takes steps to address that problem.

    H.R. 3279 requires the Administrative Conference of the United States to annually report to Congress on the ``number, nature, and amount of the awards, claims involved in the controversy, and any other relevant information that may aid the Congress in evaluating the scope and impact of such awards.'' This report covers both agency adjudications and court proceedings.

    H.R. 3279 also requires the Administrative Conference to develop and implement an online searchable database to facilitate public and congressional oversight. Agencies would be required to provide information requested by the ACUS for the development of the database and reports, but, importantly, the ACUS would be required to withhold information from the database if disclosure is prohibited by law or court order.

    The Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act ensures that agencies are operating under a watchful public eye and that taxpayer dollars are being spent properly.

    Our Federal Government is too big, and I believe it needs to be downsized; but until we can make that happen, transparency should be a minimum requirement. That is why H.R. 3279 is important. It is common sense, plain and simple. Where the Federal Government is spending money, Congress needs to exercise oversight to ensure it is being done the way the law requires.

    {time} 1645 For most people who are facing a suit against the Federal Government, it is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge and a daunting suit to undertake even if they are completely in the right. We need to make sure the law is working for them. Allowing plaintiffs to recoup legal costs when they sue the Federal Government for reparations they deserve is only fair.

    Many Americans do not have the resources to take on our vast and sprawling bureaucracy, but the Equal Access to Justice Act gave them the power to do so by removing a barrier to justice for those with limited access to resources. However, since the original reporting requirements were halted by Congress, information on these payments made under the law is severely lacking.

    Tracking and reporting payments will help preserve the integrity of this law and will help Congress make sure that the law is working effectively for the people it was intended to help.

    It is past time that we shine a light on this issue. We owe transparency to the taxpayers who are financing the law, and we owe it to the citizens--the small businesses, the veterans, and the Social Security claimants--who rely on the law.

    H.R. 3279 represents a bipartisan agreement that transparency over payments made under the Equal Access to Justice Act needs to be restored. The Open Book on Equal Access to Justice Act will help to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent as intended under this law.

    Past support for this legislation demonstrates a consensus that we need to address this issue and that Americans deserve to know what their government is doing.

    I urge my colleagues to support H.R. 3279.

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