- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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 yesterday.

The Senate’s top Republican said he did not know how the tax provision found its way into a $388 billion spending bill, but said it would not become law.

“It’s fixed. It’s fixed,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, told CBS, saying that members of both parties had read the bill before its passage.

“Democrats read it, Republicans read it. Democrat staffers read it, Republican staffers read it. And in that process, they found this one sentence, and [Saturday] we fixed it on the floor of the United States Senate. It will be fixed by the House in three days.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, whose aide was the first to point out implications posed by the provision, said he was writing the head of the Internal Revenue Service 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.

Republicans said the provision, removed from the 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, Oklahoma Republican, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the IRS.

Mr. Istook, whose name was linked to the language when it caused an uproar on the Senate floor during the weekend, yesterday denied he was behind the provision, saying it was written by the IRS 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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 about opponents, he said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican, 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,” Mr. Young said.

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