GOP lawmaker: Tax-return measure aimed at IRS oversight
Democratic senator: 'Privacy would have been jeopardized'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A provision in the giant omnibus spending bill that would have allowed two lawmakers access to the tax returns of every American was "too dangerous" and should "never become law," the senator whose staff found the provision said Monday.
Staff members of Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, found the language in the 3,500-page bill Saturday after the House passed it on to the Senate as the deadline before the Senate's holiday recess rapidly approached.
"You think of what could be done here," Conrad told reporters at a news conference. "Any agent of the chairman of the Appropriations Committee -- and they could designate anybody as an agent -- could go into IRS facilities anywhere in the country and get your tax returns."
Rep. Ernest Istook, the Oklahoma Republican whose subcommittee was responsible for the provision, said it had been misrepresented.
"Nobody's privacy was ever jeopardized," Istook said, noting that the language was intended to "include visiting and inspecting the huge IRS processing centers, but not inspecting tax returns."
"It may get the media's attention when someone makes a wild claim, but it's time for everyone to calm down. There's no conspiracy here," Istook said.
Conrad rejected Istook's comments.
"The only thing wrong with that statement is, it's not true," Conrad said. "Of course people's privacy would have been jeopardized under such a provision."
The provision would bypass other laws that govern "the disclosure of income tax returns or return information" -- and that impose steep penalties and fines on such disclosure -- to allow the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees or their agents "access to Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and his Democratic counterpart Tom Daschle ironed out an agreement to pass the $388 billion bill and remove the language by resolution, while holding it in the Senate until the House passes a similar resolution. Only then will the bill go to President Bush for his signature.
"I have no earthly idea how it got in there," Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said on CBS's "Face The Nation" Sunday. "Nobody is going to defend this."
But Istook did defend it.
"This was not my language, and it was not to give anyone access to tax returns, either," Istook said. "Our committee has the responsibility for the IRS budget; that includes its personnel and equipment."
The provision, he said, would allow the appropriations committees to keep track of how the IRS spends its money, a contention with which Conrad took harsh issue.
"You don't need access to the individual tax returns of the American people to determine how the IRS's money is being spent," he said. "You can look at the summary data, you can look at the actual expenditures -- all of those are available to the Appropriations Committee now.
"You don't need some whole new unfettered access to individual tax returns of people or of companies in order to figure out how the IRS is spending its money," Conrad said.
Istook's deputy chief of staff, Micah Leydorf, told CNN Sunday that neither she nor Istook had actually seen the provision and that it was added to the spending bill at the full committee level by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican.
"It wasn't our language," Leydorf said. "It wasn't our initiative. It was not in the original bill."
The two lawmakers who would have gained access to tax returns -- Young, a Florida Republican, and Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican -- both said they would not use it even if were included in the final version of the bill.
Frist said Sunday that "accountability will be carried out" against whoever slipped in the provision, which angered Democrats and Republicans alike.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, blasted the provision.
"The Republicans' lack of transparency and willingness to abuse their power is undermining democracy," Pelosi said in a news release. "It should be of grave concern to all Americans that their privacy could be invaded by such an outrageous provision."
Sen. John McCain said Sunday that the episode points up the problems created when Congress passes gigantic spending bills at the end of a session before anyone has time to read them.
"If there is ever a graphic example of the broken system that we now have, that certainly has to be it," the Arizona Republican said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "How many other provisions didn't we find?"
Sen. Charles Schumer called Sunday for an investigation into how the language got into the bill, followed by "appropriate punishment" for those responsible.
"This harkens back to the days of [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover, when some unknown person could go and snoop on you," the New York Democrat said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Rushing to adjourn for the year, the House on Saturday passed the $388 billion spending bill, which was necessary to keep government operations funded after Congress ran out of time to pass nine regular appropriations bills. (Full story)
Saturday had been scheduled as the final day of a lame-duck session for the 108th Congress.
The delay will not cause a government shutdown, however. Congress already had passed a stopgap resolution to fund government agencies through December 3 to give the White House time to consider the omnibus bill.