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Spending bills plagued by secretive process

Outrage over provisions added at the last minute to a $388 billion Congressional spending bill highlights lawmakers' increasing reliance on a secretive process that leaves the public and most members of Congress ignorant of the content of huge bills.
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A $388 billion government-wide spending bill, passed by Congress on Saturday, was stranded on Capitol Hill yesterday, its trip to the White House on hold as embarrassed Republicans prepared to repeal a provision that could give the Appropriations committees the right to examine the tax returns of Americans.

Top GOP lawmakers disavowed the provision, expressed surprise that it was in the bill, and blamed both the Internal Revenue Service and congressional staffs for incorporating it into the omnibus spending package funding domestic departments in 2005.

But Democrats — and some Republicans — charged that the incident highlighted the deterioration of a budget-writing system that is prey to such incidents. Unable to agree on how much to spend on basic governmental services, they say, House and Senate GOP leaders increasingly are resorting to a secretive process that leaves the public and most members of Congress ignorant of the content of huge spending bills until hours before a final vote.

At a news conference denouncing this closed-door process, Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, warned that "something really seriously bad is going to happen if we let this continue." He quoted a Republican, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.): "This process is broken."

Republicans hope to finally quell the uproar over the provision tomorrow, when the House is set to approve a resolution repealing it. The Senate took that action on Saturday, after Senate leaders promised that the omnibus spending bill on which the provision was riding would not be sent to the president for his signature until both houses had repealed it.

The provision, added to the spending package of more than 3,000 pages last Thursday, would give staffers of the House and Senate Appropriations committees similar powers to enter IRS facilities and examine tax returns as are now available to the tax-writing committees of the two chambers.

Oversight or prying?
But the provision appeared to some lawmakers to expressly set aside privacy safeguards, which mandate criminal penalties for those divulging individual tax information. Members of both parties charged this could breach the confidentiality of returns.

House officials said the language was intended only to allow staffers to enter IRS facilities where returns were being processed, to oversee how taxpayer money was being used. Such full access is now denied by the IRS, they said, because of the chance a congressional aide might inadvertently see a return.

The provision, House sources said, was drafted by the IRS and inserted into the bill by lower-level House staffers. Senior House and Senate Republicans said they never saw it until the bill appeared on the floor, and yesterday IRS spokesman Terry Lemons said the IRS commissioner "was unaware of the provision until after it was already approved" and "strongly supports it being deleted from the final bill."

On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) referred to the provision as the "Istook amendment," and congressional aides said it had been inserted at the request of Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the IRS.

But yesterday Istook said in a written statement that he had been left in the dark about the provision: "I didn't write it; I didn't approve it; I wasn't even consulted. My name shouldn't be associated with it because I had nothing to do with it."

Last-minute additions
Micah Leydorf, Istook's spokeswoman, said she understood the language was added by the full Appropriations Committee staff or by Istook's subcommittee staff at the direction of staffers for the full committee.

"We have a problem with how bills like this are put together," Istook acknowledged. "The subcommittee chairman should never be bypassed like I was in this case."

He added that "honest mistakes were made but there's no conspiracy."

But some top Republicans were less charitable. Speaking on the Senate floor Saturday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Kan.), who chairs the tax-writing Finance Committee, called the provision an "outrage" and said it will "bring us back to the doorsteps of the days of Nixon, Truman and similar dark periods in our tax history when tax return information was used as a club against political enemies."

"It's simply representative of the way Congress is now operating," said Allen Schick, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It shows on the one hand how easy it is to put something in [an omnibus bill] without anybody else knowing about it." Although this may look particularly egregious, he said, the giant bill also contains hundreds of other provisions that could not be enacted into law if they were offered as single bills requiring full debate and scrutiny in both houses.

Such huge bills, lawmakers acknowledge, represent a breakdown of the normal budget process. For the second time in three years, House and Senate Republicans, bitterly divided over the level of domestic spending, failed to agree on a budget blueprint, as required by law.

The impasse forced delays in drafting many of the spending bills, and when Congress returned last week from its election recess, it had yet to complete nine of the 13 annual appropriations bills. Seven of the spending bills had never been to the Senate floor for debate, one had never been to the House floor, and one funding the nation's nuclear weapons programs and Army Corps of Engineers water projects was still in a Senate subcommittee.

To overcome this problem, GOP leaders crammed all the remaining legislation into a single omnibus package that, under congressional rules, could not be amended.

It contained all the unfinished spending bills, along with three other pieces of major legislation — the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act, the Snake River Water Rights Act, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

Pork and secrecy
Along with those measures, lawmakers and staffs added thousands of local projects benefiting home states and districts. Also included in the final bill was a major provision barring states from enforcing laws that require health care providers, hospitals, HMOs or insurers to pay for, provide or give referrals for abortion.

But when the measure was rushed to the floors of the two chambers Saturday, few members had read it. Lawmakers absent from the Capitol for weeks while campaigning for reelection returned for a brief lame-duck session to complete the work of the 108th Congress.

The secretive process, Schick noted, gives GOP leaders enormous power to add provisions that they or special interests might want, and to delete provisions that GOP factions or the White House find objectionable.

Frist, for example, ordered negotiators to accept the abortion provision, even though it had never gone to the Senate floor and was only in the House-passed version of the bill covering health appropriations. Senate opponents agreed not to block its consideration after Frist promised to schedule a vote soon on a bill drafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to repeal the provision.

GOP leaders also deleted provisions on overtime regulations and the outsourcing of government jobs despite support in both houses.

"It's not transparent, and it's a breakdown of legislative order," Schick said.

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.