Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. — Mark Twain
Acting with more speed than judgment, the U.S. Senate has approved an omnibus spending bill that its members were given only a few hours to review. Only the Lord and a few select lobbies may know what all is in this monster bill, which is really nine bills rolled into one, seven of which were never fully reviewed and debated in the Senate. That’s the U.S. Senate, which used to be called the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.
When it rushed this bill into law, the world’s greatest deliberative body dispensed with deliberation. That’s no way to make law, or rather it’s a good way to make bad law.
One lulu of a clause in this 3,000-page mother of all spending bills gave the chairmen of the two congressional committees on appropriations — or anyone they designate! — the authority to examine any citizen’s tax return, including yours, Gentle Taxpayer. And even make it public. Notwithstanding any and all of the laws now on the books that make it a criminal offense to violate the privacy of a citizen’s tax return.
This brief but devastating provision would have overturned all the protections afforded a citizen’s confidential tax return by the post-Watergate reforms after Richard Nixon was caught using law enforcement agencies to cover his tracks.
This joker in the deck — or rather needle in the haystack, considering the sheer volume of this bill — was discovered at the last minute by a keen-eyed aide on the staff of Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
How did this language get into the bill? Not even the Republican leadership in the Senate seemed aware of it. “Something happened in the middle of the night,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. “The Senate was totally amazed.” Her astonishment was echoed by Arizona’s John McCain, who said the way the clause was slipped into this $388-billion spending bill showed “the system is broken.”
One of the bill’s Republican backers in the House — Oklahoma’s Ernest Istook — says it’s all a misunderstanding, and that nobody wants to look at anybody’s tax return. The controversial provision, he explains, was just a way of assuring congressional access to IRS offices where tax returns might be stored. It’s all part of Congress’ duty to provide oversight, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Then how did this all-encompassing language get into the bill? The congressman says it was drafted by the IRS or some congressional staffers, not his office. (A faceless bureaucracy is so much easier to blame than anyone in particular.)
Whoever drafted this little beauty of an exception to the privacy laws, its sweeping language shows that the drafter knew just what he was doing. This was no random slip of the pen.
This much is clear: (1) Congressman Istook is chairman of the subcommittee responsible for overseeing the IRS’ spending. And (2) he’s the member of Congress who should be reviewing all legislative language related to the IRS’ budget — like this obnoxious clause in a huge spending bill. There it lurked unnoticed by almost everyone till it was almost too late to kill it.
In short, the excuses the congressman is now making are not acceptable. By now Ernest Istook has done enough “explaining;” he would do better to apologize and hope people will forget this little end run. Because he’s only digging himself deeper into this hole.
The congressman says nobody ever intended to look at anybody’s tax returns. Maybe. But whenever power is left unchecked, it will be abused by someone sooner or later — someone who’ll pass the buck when he’s found out.
At last report, this offensive little clause — no doubt one of many yet to be discovered in this huge thicket of a spending bill — is being revoked forthwith through a complicated parliamentary maneuver. But the rest of the bill remains intact, and you can be sure it contains many another concealed outrage. Complicated spending bills invite sneaky little grabs.
They say one should never watch laws or sausage being made. But if nobody keeps a lookout, there’s no telling what smelly ingredients — like this license to peek — will wind up being sold for public consumption.
This not-so-little matter shouldn’t end here. The American people deserve to know just who originated this clause, how it escaped scrutiny till it was almost too late to delete it, and just who needs to be disciplined for trying to sneak it into law.
Why was most of Congress left in the dark as this humongous bill was rushed into law? Was that a result of insensitivity, incompetence, or both?
When Mark Twain compared congressmen to idiots, he was, of course, being unfair. To idiots.
l Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and author of “No Surprises: Two Decades of Clinton-Watching.”