WASHINGTON – IRS workers would be prohibited from using private email to conduct official business under a bipartisan bill passed Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee.
The issue gained attention following revelations that Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush used personal email addresses to conduct government business. Both are potential candidates for president in 2016.
"Events over the past month underscore the need to maintain transparent record-keeping procedures for executive branch employees," said Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. "IRS personnel should never use personal email addresses when conducting official government businesses, especially those who routinely handle sensitive taxpayer information."
The bill was one of several passed by the committee that came from the panel's investigation into the way the IRS treated conservative political groups when they applied for tax-exempt status. All the IRS bills had broad bipartisan support.
Separately, the panel voted along party lines to pass a bill that would repeal the federal estate tax, a highly political issue that affects less than 1 percent of estates.
Among the IRS bills, one would enact a taxpayer bill of rights and another would streamline the process for social welfare organizations to apply for tax-exempt status. One bill would protect people who donate to tax-exempt groups from later being forced to pay gift taxes.
In 2013, the IRS acknowledged that agents had improperly singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. The Justice Department and several committees in Congress launched investigations.
Ways and Means investigators said several IRS workers sent confidential taxpayer information to personal email accounts. Among them was former IRS official Lois Lerner, a central figure in the committee's investigation.
Lerner, who has retired, headed the division that processed applications for tax-exempt status.
IRS policy already prohibits workers from using a personal email account to transmit confidential taxpayer information. The bill would make the policy law.
The use of personal email accounts by government officials became a hot issue after it was disclosed that Clinton used one to conduct government business while she was secretary of state. Clinton has turned over thousands of emails to the State Department, which is reviewing them before it makes them public.
Bush also used a private email when he was governor of Florida. Bush has posted online more than 275,000 emails from his two terms in office.
The Ways and Means Committee passed the email bill and six others on unrecorded voice votes, with support from both Republicans and Democrats. The House is expected to take up the bills after Congress returns from its spring break vacation in April.
The bill repealing the estate tax was much more partisan, sparking a passionate and sometimes personal debate.
Republicans said repealing the estate tax would help farmers and small business owners keep their businesses in the family. Democrats said the estate tax hits only the very wealthy.
Few estates pay the 40 percent tax because there are large exemptions. For individuals, estates as large as $5.4 million are exempt. Married couples can exempt up to $10.9 million.
A total of 4,687 estates paid the tax in 2013, out of nearly 2.6 million deaths, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
Repealing the tax would add $269 billion to the federal budget deficit over the next decade, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., said the estate tax helps to limit large concentrations of wealth.
"The principle here is not to create a permanent aristocracy," Neal said.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said some farmers may have valuable land but little money in the bank to pay the tax.
Noem told how her father died when she was in college. She said her family had to take out a loan to pay the estate taxes on their family farm.
"They may have equity by they don't have dollars in the bank," Noem said. "I know it because I lived with it."
The committee passed the bill by a vote of 22-10, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats who voted opposed. The bill now goes to the full House, where it is likely to pass.
The bill's fate is uncertain in the Senate.