WASHINGTON – Congress voted unanimously Monday to kill a provision making it easier for lawmakers and aides to peruse people's income tax returns (search) in a vote Republicans hoped would end a political tempest.
The House, back for a pre-holiday session this week, voted to withdraw the provision by 381-0. The Senate gave its assent on Nov. 20 to the same measure, which does not need President Bush's (search) approval.
The language in question was a single sentence in a gargantuan $388 billion bill financing almost the entire domestic side of government that the GOP-run House and Senate also approved Nov. 20. Monday's vote to wred the way for lawmakers to send the overall spending bill to Bush for his signature.
Democrats, who noticed the provision the day Congress passed the spending bill, have ridiculed it as a potential invasion of privacy. They were instantly joined by Republicans expressing outrage and promising its repeal, but that didn't stop Democratic criticism.
"Our citizens expect and deserve a government that respects their privacy and does not discriminate against them on the basis of their political beliefs," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif., said Monday during a brief House debate.
The language would have let leading members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees sign letters authorizing people to enter Internal Revenue Service facilities and see tax returns there.
Republicans have said the provision was intended to give Appropriations Committee members better access to IRS offices. The Appropriations panels oversee the IRS budget, but under current law must get approval from the House Ways and Means or the Senate Finance committees to send aides to agency facilities where returns might be viewed.
"The Appropriations Committee has never had any intention to review or investigate individual tax returns," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla.
Democrats also used the incident to criticize the hectic process by which the spending measure, exceeding 3,000 pages, was written.
It was completed over several days during which aides had little sleep and lawmakers had only a few hours to peruse it before voting. Democrats said the House should follow its own rules and give lawmakers at least three days to study bills before voting on them.
"The only people who don't know how this happened are members of Congress," said Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel.
Young noted that Democratic aides as well as Republicans knew the provision had been inserted into the spending measure.
The provision did not include penalties for improper disclosure of taxpayer information. Criminal and civil penalties currently apply if Senate Finance or House Ways and Means members allow taxpayer information to be disseminated.
Officials from the IRS, which wrote most of the language, have said they thought congressional aides would insert penalty provisions. House aides have said they thought the IRS language was sufficient.