The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation in a party line vote of 19-14 that would narrow eligibility requirements for individuals and organizations able to receive payment for legal fees if they successfully sue the federal government.

Bill supporters argue that current law has allowed well-financed environmental groups to push their political agendas at taxpayer expense.

Under current law (the Equal Access to Justice Act), individuals whose net worth is $2 million or less and organizations worth $7 million or less can recover attorneys’ fees of up to $125 per hour if they successfully sue the federal government. This act was meant to be an anti-bully law to help small businesses and ordinary American taxpayers defend their rights in litigation against the federal government.

Whether the bill is serving its intended purpose is in doubt, Judiciary Committee Chairman Smith, R-Texas, said, contending that attorneys’ fees are being paid to certain frequent litigants, particularly 501(c) (3) organizations exempt from the $7 million net worth limitation, for what he called ideologically driven lawsuits.

“American taxpayers should not be forced to pay attorneys’ fees and costs in some of these circumstances,” Smith said.

H.R. 1996, the Government Litigation Savings Act, would specify that litigants would need to have been directly affected due to medical costs, property damage, benefit denial or lack of payment. The bill also would: 1) remove the current exemption 501(c) (3) groups from a provision that disqualifies organizations worth more than $7 million, 2) limit awards to not more than $200,000 in any single adversary adjudication or for more than three adjudications in the same calendar year, 3) require payment amounts to be reduced if litigants unreasonably or unduly drag out cases, and 4) require the Administrative Conference of the United States to create an online searchable database with information on who receives awards, the amount of awards and other information.