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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Guess who wants to read your tax return

The Republican leadership in Congress wants to be able to send congressional committee staff members out to the IRS service centers and have them read your tax return.

At least, that's what they slipped into the big budget bill that's awaiting the President's signtaure.

That is, until somebody noticed.

Now no one in either house of Congress is admitting to having even looked at the provision before voting on the bill.

The new Congress isn't even here yet, and already I can see that the next four years are going to be extremely depressing.

Comments (13)

And its not like legislation moves so quickly that there isn't time to read the bills. The legislative process is painstakingly slow.

The real question is who slipped that section in and why? You know its some "model" langauge the legislator had sitting around his office and he thought he could sneak it through in this bill.

Drive me crazy.

Everything I've read and heard about this sounds like an honest mistake. In an effort to increase Congressional oversight of the IRS--which is a popular if (in my opinion) misguided response to real and perceived abuses by our taxing authorities--a provision was inserted that unwittingly would have given congressional leadership access to individual tax returns.

Now that they understand that, Congress is acting swiftly to delete the provision. A ham-handed way to write laws, I'll admit, but hardly a conspiracy to invade people's privacy.

I guess that since no one's owning up to having written these words, we'll never know what their intent was.

Right on point as to who reads these bills, or doesn't -- and from your local paper yesterday (about my local Congressman):

Link here.

I wrote extensively about this at the other blog where I hang out these days. It's no accident. You have to have the patience to wade through the legislative documents, but any claim that it was inaedvertent was bullshit, and the idea that it "accidentally" gave the chairs access to tax returns is equally hogwash, because that it all, by its terms, that it does.


Here is what the bill actually says:

"Hereafter, notwithstanding any other provision of law governing the disclosure of income tax returns or return information, upon written request of the chairman of the House or Senate Committee on Appropriations, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service shall allow agents designated by such chairman access to Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein."

That's the committee chairs, or whatever "agents" they designate.

Oklahoma State Representative Ernest Istook, took responsibility for inserting the income tax snoop provision, then backtracked the next day. A real flip-flop. Caught red-handed by the good Senator from N. Dakota. Watching the water hit the wheel on C-Span was as good as watching the Beavers thump the Ducks.

Other provisions slipped in the Omnibus Bill were cuts to college student's Pell Grants. The maximum grant will be frozen at $4,050. This freeze will hit lower-middle class families the hardest.

We all read the headline that fewer Freshman have enrolled in Oregon Universities. So much for social mobility via higher ed.

Another provision that was sneaked in by Republicans was the legislation that exempts doctors and nurses from providing any form of counseling, education, or referral information to women seeking information about reproductive options. So much for elevating the status of women.

It's gonna be a long four years.

The Democrats tried to slip in one changing the overtime rules, but it got axed.

When Democrats do it, that's good; when Republicans do it, that's bad.

The effort will be continued by U-Boat Captain Ted Kennedy and Tom "I was in Vietnam, oh no, wait, no I wasn't" Harkin.

They got to do what the Union thugs tell them or they'll sleep with the fishes.

What a great time to be alive in America. I'm just loving all this Christian spirit I'm feeling out there.

It's just not possible that it accidentally gave them access to individual tax returns, since it names the committee chairs, and it uses the words "tax returns."

If it said, "Congress shall have access to the tax information necessary to properly oversee IRS field office operations" or something of that nature, it might be believable that they didn't anticipate the privacy aspects. But it specifically (1) "notwithstanding"s out the privacy laws about individual tax returns; (2) names the committee chairs; and (3) says that they are to have access to "tax returns."

There simply isn't anything inadvertent about what was done. It's an intelligence-insulting explanation on the part of Frist and friends. They're lying, and among the various folks involved, they've told about six different lies about it already. "My God, we had no idea that provision was in there!" "Well, we did, but we didn't know it did that!" "Well, we knew it did that, but that really isn't that bad." "Istook did it." "A staffer did it." "An IRS employee did it."

Yeah. Come up with a coherent version, and we'll go about responding to it.

This is clearly an example of what happens when provisions are hastily written and inserted into a bill at the last minute, but I still don't see the smoking gun of bad faith here.

By its express terms, the language in the bill authorizes the chairman to designate (in writing) agents to investigate IRS facilities and any tax returns and return information contained within. This is terrible legislation and rife with potential for abuse but it is not hard to imagine a staffer writing something like that when his or her boss says, "Put something in that will keep the IRS from hiding behind claims of privacy the next time we're investigating their abuse of taxpayers."

Any committee chairman who took the time to think about this would realize the vulnerable position he or she would be in if they ever exercised this power, much less abused it. This provision is dumb, dumb, dumb--but I really don't think it was a calculated attempt to go back to the days when JFK could order the IRS to audit all the officers of U.S. Steel unless they rolled back their proposed price increases.

Well, the first "smoking gun," which I discussed in the blog post I referenced above and won't belabor again, is that the provision is intentionally obscured in the summary document signed by Republican committee members.

Furthermore, why would the chairs of the Appropriations committees -- who are not the ones with general oversight authority over the IRS -- need to look at tax returns or investigate abuse of taxpayers? General revenue provisions are under the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee. Why would IRS misdeeds be investigated by the Appropriations committee?

Further-furthermore, the Appropriations Committee site now blames people who objected to the provision for objecting to it (of course), claiming that it was "misinterpreted." In fact, it is obvious that it was entirely correctly interpreted, and the insistence on blaming the people who discovered this particular misdeed rather than sucking it up and apologizing makes it even more obvious that this is no mistake. If it were, they would take the blame for it.

Quite honestly, even if their explanation were true -- "We asked the IRS to draft something, and we inserted it into the bill no questions asked, so who knew?" -- I don't find that very reassuring.

They put a measure in a bill that would have allowed two members of Congress, and anyone they designated, to look at anyone's tax return they chose, regardless of the purpose and without regard for existing privacy laws. Given that, they're stuck with either bad faith or crushing neglect of their responsibilities. There is no other option. Those are the only choices. Incompetence or malice, it's one or the other. They are essentially arguing utter incompetence, but I'm not buying it.

The sad fact of the matter is that these people, those whom we have entrusted to act only in the best interest of our nation, those who have the ultimate power to move a simple bill along the road to ultimate law, those who make a damn good amount of money doing what they do DONíT READ MOST OF WHAT IS GIVEN TO THEM. They sign and pass, sign and passÖ all day long. And this is the result.

And donít try to tell me that it was an Ďhonest mistakeí something like this got that far along in the procedure. Iím not screaming conspiracy or anything like that Ė itís just obvious that someone somewhere did one of two things:

1. They slipped this clause in just to see if they would catch it, as if to test them, or;
2. They slipped this clause in there in an attempt to take advantage of the fact that they probably wouldnít catch it.

Now, even if it had passed, there is still the possibility that it would have gone unnoticed when The Cowboy went to sign it. After all, itís been scanned by so many pairs of eyes before reaching his desk, surely itís good to go, right?

My only fear is how much crap is NOT being caught? Whoís to benefit from them and whoís going to suffer? Itís thoughts like this that make it hard for me to give my trust to a large governmental bureaucracy.

Iím just glad someone was on the ball for this one.


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