The House of Representatives gave initial approval Thursday to a proposal that would temporarily end the payment of attorney fees to some people who successfully sue the federal government.
Republican supporters of the proposal said they want to stop payments because of insufficient accounting of the program. Under the Equal Access to Justice Act of 1980, individuals, small businesses, non-profits and others can collect attorney fees from the federal government if they prevail in a case and meet certain other requirements, such as a falling below a net worth ceiling.
The temporary halt was added as an amendment to legislation designed to pay the federal government’s operations through Sept. 30. The legislation, known as a continuing resolution, itself still needs approval from the full House and Senate, and it could change.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), the sponsor of the amendment, called the 1980 law a “very fair law.” But she said the payments should stop because there’s no centralized information about which lawyers and plaintiffs are getting the fee awards.
“We need to have a six-month moratorium on expenditures and payouts under EAJA, so we can get information about who’s receiving this money,” she said on the House floor.
Lummis and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said they suspect some non-profits, especially environmental groups, are abusing the law and using it as a regular source of funding. “It has become, frankly, a cottage industry — suing the federal government, which is suing the people, and then asking the people to pay your legal fees for doing so,” Simpson said.
Democrats, making an appeal to Tea Party supporters, said an end to the payments would harm people who are fighting the government with few resources. They described plaintiffs suing because they were denied Social Security benefits or used as “guinea pigs” in nuclear experiments decades ago.
“Who do you want to empower, the people who were the guinea pigs or the federal government?” asked Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Amendment opponents pointed to the law’s several requirements before fees can be awarded. For example, fees are not available if the federal government’s position was “substantially justified.”
The amendment passed 232-197, largely along party lines.
Updated at 12:26 p.m. with additional reporting.