WASHINGTON – Congress passed legislation Saturday giving two committee chairmen and their assistants access to income tax returns (search) without regard to privacy protections, but not before red-faced Republicans said it was all a mistake and would be swiftly repealed.
The Senate unanimously adopted a resolution immediately after passing a 3,300-word spending bill containing the measure, saying the provision "shall have no effect." House leaders promised to pass the resolution next Wednesday.
"We're going to get that done," said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search).
The spending bill covering most federal agencies and programs will not be sent to President Bush until the House acts on the resolution repealing the tax returns language.
"There will be no window where this will be law," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) said. He referred to the provision as the Istook amendment and congressional aides said it was put in the bill at the request of Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee.
The provision and the inability of Hastert, R-Ill., to get the votes he wanted on an intelligence overhaul bill left Republican leaders chagrinned on a day they had intended to be a celebration of their accomplishments.
"This is a serious situation," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. "Neither of this were aware that this had been inserted in this bill," he said, referring to himself and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla.
Questioned sharply by fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, Stevens pleaded with the Senate to approve the overall spending bill despite the tax returns language.
But Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said that wasn't good enough. "It becomes the law of the land on the signature of the president of the United States. That's wrong."
Conrad said the measure's presence in the spending bill was symptomatic of a broader problem — Congress writing legislation hundreds of pages long and then giving lawmakers only a few hours to review it before having to vote on it.
Stevens, who repeatedly apologized for what he characterized as an error, took offense at Conrad's statement. "It's contrary to anything that I have seen happen in more than 30 years on this committee," he said.
Pounding on his desk, Stevens said he had given his word and so had Young that neither would use the authority to require the IRS to turn over individual or corporate tax returns to them. "I would hope that the Senate would take my word. I don't think I have ever broken my word to any member of the Senate."
"... Do I have to get down on my knees and beg," he said.
Both Young and Stevens will cede their chairmanships when the new Congress elected earlier this month takes office in January.
Some Democrats didn't accept the assertion that the provision was a mistake and demanded an investigation.
"We weren't born yesterday, we didn't come down with the first snow," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "This isn't poorly thought out, this was very deliberately thought out and it was done in the dead of night."
Members of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee now have limited access to tax returns, but there are severe criminal and civil penalties if the information is disclosed or misused.
Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the measure will "bring us back to the doorstep to the days of President Nixon, President Truman and other dark days in our history when taxpayer information was used against political enemies."