WASHINGTON – Whoever wrote a legislative provision to give more members of Congress access to income tax records should be tracked down and held to account, a Democratic senator said Monday.
Republicans countered that the provision, removed from the $388 billion spending bill after protests from members of both parties, was not meant to weaken privacy laws. "Honest mistakes were made, but there's no conspiracy here," said Rep. Ernest Istook (search), R-Okla., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the IRS.
Istook, whose name was linked to the language when it caused an uproar on the Senate floor during the weekend, denied on Monday that he was behind the provision, saying it was written by the Internal Revenue Service (search) at the request of Appropriations Committee staff.
The intent, he said, was to give House and Senate Appropriations chairmen and their aides access to IRS processing centers for oversight purposes and not to review individual returns.
The provision says committee chairmen and their agents would have access to IRS "facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein."
Sen. Kent Conrad (search), D-N.D., whose aide was the first to point out implications posed by the provision, said he was writing the head of the IRS to ask whether the language originated in that agency. The author, he said at a news conference, "needs to be identified and held to account because that is beyond the pale."
There was no immediate comment from the IRS.
Conrad, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said the chairmen of that committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, which are responsible for tax law, already have authority to see income tax returns. "They are under very stringent penalties, both civil and criminal, if ever they release that information," Conrad said.
He said the new provision would have given "unfettered power," not subject to penalty, to the Appropriations chairmen and their agents. Those agents could be anybody, including political party officials looking for incriminating material on opponents, he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said both Republican and Democratic staff read through the bill Thursday, and the issue was not raised. "Clearly there was never any desire to access personal information, and it's unfortunate that some have misrepresented and exaggerated the purpose of this language," Young said.
Conrad said the bigger issue was the recent trend in Congress not to pass spending bills by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year and then have to combine unpassed bills into giant omnibus packages (search) before Congress adjourns for the year. Saturday's bill, which included nine of the 13 spending bills Congress has to act on every year, ran more than 3,000 pages.
Conrad said "there is no earthly way" for lawmakers and their staffs to learn what's in these bills in the few hours they have to inspect them before the vote. "What else is in this stack of paper that people don't know about?" he asked.
Republicans agreed that the huge year-end packages court bad legislation.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, managing his last bill before he steps down as Appropriations chairman, said in debate Saturday that the "terrible mistake" was a stain on his record. "It is a terrible way to do business."