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Congress won’t block tax-return proposal

A proposal to let more lawmakers see income tax returns is going to stay alive into December, thanks to Democratic complaints over how the one-sentence provision was stuffed into a gargantuan spending bill.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A proposal to let more lawmakers see income tax returns is going to stay alive into December, thanks to Democratic complaints over how the one-sentence provision was stuffed into a gargantuan spending bill.

With most of their colleagues scattered for the Thanksgiving holiday, a handful of House members voted Wednesday to keep the government from shutting down until lawmakers can kill the tax-peeking idea.

The spat was over language buried in a $388 billion spending bill letting leaders of Congress’ Appropriations committees examine income tax returns. Both parties favor killing the tax return provision before it becomes law, but Democrats blocked a House vote to do so until Dec. 6.

Because of the delay, the House and the Senate called brief meetings Wednesday to pass a bill letting federal agencies financed by the spending measure — most of the government — operate through Dec. 8. Currently, that authority runs through Dec. 3.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday that Democrats would not allow the provision to be withdrawn earlier unless Republicans agreed to stop rushing bills through the House.

Republican leaders turned down her offer. Instead, the two parties agreed that the House will vote on the measure Dec. 6 — in effect, giving Democrats more time to criticize Republicans for inserting the measure in the first place.

“The assault on taxpayer privacy was not a simple mistake, and Democrats will not let Republicans sweep it under the rug,” Pelosi said.

Invasion of taxpayers’ privacy
Republican leaders have disavowed the provision, calling it an invasion of taxpayers’ privacy. They have promised to hold off on sending the $388 billion spending bill that contains it to President Bush until the bill stripping the tax-return language is passed. Congress approved the overall spending bill Saturday.

Democrats and some Republican critics see the tax return measure as a symptom of lawmakers’ habit of rushing major bills through Congress with little time for them to know exactly what they are voting on.

Pelosi said she wants Republicans to heed an often-ignored rule forbidding the House to vote on bills until at least three days after they are approved by committees.

Republicans note that Democrats did the same thing when they were in the majority.

“For her to make that demand on its face is pretty ridiculous” and “blatantly political,” said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Sloppy drafting blamed
The $388 billion spending bill included a little-noticed sentence giving top lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations committees access to Internal Revenue Service facilities or “any tax returns or return information contained therein.”

Republican leaders have blamed sloppy drafting by congressional aides and the IRS for the provision. They say they wanted to ensure that lawmakers and aides could enter IRS offices for oversight purposes, and that the special waiver is needed to be in areas where tax returns are processed.

Since the 1970s, the tax code has given leaders of the House Ways and Means, Senate Finance, and Joint Tax committees the right to examine tax returns and visit IRS facilities where returns are present. They can also grant others the same authority.

Congressional aides say lawmakers have examined tax returns only during extraordinary investigations. There are civil and criminal penalties if the information is made public — punishments that were omitted from the language inserted into the spending bill.

Several aides of both parties said the tax-return provision was put into the spending measure by Appropriations committee and subcommittee aides who did not like having to seek permission from other congressional panels to visit IRS offices. The Appropriations committee controls the budget of the IRS, which helped draft the language.

The spending bill and accompanying documents were more than 3,000 pages long. Much of the final work on it was done by aides who did not sleep for several days.