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Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996: Department of Agriculture Faces Challenges Implementing Certain Key Provisions

GAO-02-277T Published: Dec 05, 2001. Publicly Released: Dec 05, 2001.
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The testimony discusses debt collection efforts by two major components at the Department of Agriculture--the Rural Housing Service (RHS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA). The Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 requires agencies to (1) notify the Department of the Treasury of debts more than 180 days delinquent for the purposes of administrative offset against any amounts that might otherwise be due and (2) refer such debts to Treasury for centralized collection. To facilitate collection, agencies can administratively garnish the wages of delinquent debtors throughout government. GAO found that agencies are excluding most reported debt more than 180 days delinquent from referral requirements. To more fully realize the benefits of debt collection, agencies need to improve their implementation of the act. The Financial Management Service is making steady progress in collecting delinquent federal non-tax debt through the Treasury Offset Program--a mandatory governmentwide debt collection program that compares delinquent debtor debt to federal payment data. Agriculture and other agencies still have not used administrative wage garnishment to collect delinquent non-tax debt even though experts have testified that it can be an extremely powerful tool for debt collection. If the government is going to make significant progress in collecting the billion of dollars its owned in delinquent non-tax debt, federal agencies have to make implementation of the act's debt collection provisions a top priority.

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