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House slaps down IRS for using personal emails for work

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FILE - In this March 5, 2014 file photo, former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Internal Revenue Service has lost emails from five more employees who are part of congressional probes into the treatment of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status, the tax service disclosed Friday. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File) AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File

In a late Tuesday night vote, the House easily passed legislation that would prohibit all IRS officials from using their personal email for work-related purposes.

It was one in a series of bills aimed at reining abuses at the IRS and elsewhere in the government. Members also approved a bill making it easier to punish senior officials for misbehavior, and making it harder for them to stay on administrative leave with pay.

Former IRS employee Lois Lerner has become the poster child for reforming the IRS, and the House approved several reform bills Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

The bill limiting the use of personal email is a direct result of the IRS targeting scandal, which led to several investigations that found, among other things, that IRS workers were using their personal emails in some cases. Last year, it became clear that former IRS worker Lois Lerner had used her personal email.

In April, the House Ways & Means Committee approved a criminal referral letter to the Justice Department, which cited Lerner's attempt to target conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and for risking the disclosure of personal tax information through her personal email account.

To stop that from happening again, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) introduced a short bill that reads simply, "“No officer or employee of the Internal Revenue Service may use a personal email account to conduct any official business of the government."

And while Republicans have led the effort to investigate the IRS, both Republicans and Democrats quickly approved Boustany's bill after a very short debate Tuesday night.

"There is no reason for an IRS employee to have confidential taxpayer information on his or her home computer without the necessary safeguards against disclosure," Boustany said during debate. "This behavior must be stopped, and I urge a 'yes' vote on this bill."

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways & Means Committee, called the bill "straightforward" and said he supports it as well.

"[T]he [IRS] manual does not specifically reference the use of personal email accounts," he said. "This legislation would specifically prohibit the use of personal email accounts to conduct official agency business. I support this bill."

After that, members approved it in a voice vote, an indication of widespread support among members of both parties.

The House also passed two other IRS-related bills by voice vote. One would let tax-exempt groups appeal IRS decisions related to their tax-exempt status, and the other would require the IRS to tell groups the status of investigations into whether their confidential tax information has been leaked.

In each case, only Levin spoke on behalf of Democrats, and said he supports the bill.

Various oversight efforts by Congress have led to the uncovering of several instances of abusive practices by senior government officials, in the IRS and elsewhere. In response, members also approved legislation Tuesday night aimed at increasing penalties against these senior officials when they misbehave.

Specifically, the House passed the Senior Executive Service Accountability Act, which would allow senior officials to be suspended without pay for up to two weeks, instead of being subject to a reprimand. It also allows these officials to be put on a two-year probation instead of just one year.

And, it requires fired senior officials to return any salary and leave time earned while on non-duty status.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said during debate that these steps need to be taken to rein in the abusive practices of senior officials throughout government. He reminded members that senior IRS official Jeff Neely was at the center of a wasteful IRS conference in Nevada.

"Mr. Neely directed those planning the conference to make it over the top; thus it came as no surprise when photos surfaced of Mr. Neely relaxing in a Las Vegas hot tub on the taxpayers' dime," he said.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) added that Lois Lerner is a perfect example of how some officials abuse the system.

"Lois Lerner certainly abused her position, and American taxpayers will never understand how Lois Lerner was placed on administrative leave on May 23, 2013, and then retired 4 months later on September 23, 2013, successfully avoiding termination after she acknowledged the IRS wrongfully scrutinized conservative groups for years," he said. "Ms. Lerner continued to receive a full salary during this time, roughly $60,000, for which the average American would have to work 15 months to earn."

Just one Democrat spoke against the bill, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who said he's worried the bill would "result in the politicization of the federal government's career senior executive core."

But Democrats didn't call for a vote on this bill, and allowed it to pass by voice vote, another sign that few Democrats opposed it. While all these bills passed easily in the House, it's unclear whether Senate Democrats will allow any to be considered in the upper chamber, despite clear support from Democrats.

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