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Reconciling ourselves to reconciliation

Reconciling ourselves to reconciliation <$NoAd$>(from a series last month in the Boston Globe) ...

Congressional conference committees, charged with reconciling differences between House- and Senate-passed versions of the same legislation, have become dramatically more powerful in shaping bills. The panels, made up of a small group of lawmakers appointed by leaders in both parties, added a record 3,407 "pork barrel" projects to appropriations bills for this year's federal budget, items that were never debated or voted on beforehand by the House and Senate and whose congressional patrons are kept secret. This compares to just 47 projects added in conference committee in 1994, the last year of Democratic control.


Lawmakers say they are still finding items in the Medicare package that passed last winter that they find objectionable, such as the financial penalty on seniors who wait to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug plan.

"There was no way that every member of Congress could hold up their right hand and say, `I read every page of that bill before the vote,' " said Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, noting that members had just one day to examine the 400-plus-page bill before voting on a law that would change health-care allotments across the country.

This whole article, by the Globe's Susan Milligan, and the whole series, are really worth reading.

Sometimes it only makes

Sometimes it only makes sense to focus our attention on those questions that are equal parts trivial and intriguing. And to that end I call your attention to the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) website and their list of political giving by Tom DeLay's leadership PAC, ARMPAC. (For some reason, whenever I write that name, I can't help but thinking 'armpit'. But perhaps that's my bias speaking.) The list is quite helpful in understanding the vote on the DeLay Rule, particularly up at the higher reaches where we find Rep. Mike Ferguson (#1) pulling down over $42,000 or Minnesota's John Kline (#10) raking in over $30,000.

But hop over to the list and scroll all the way down and you'll see a non-trivial number of reps. who got $20 or $14 or -- humiliation of humiliations! -- $6 from the Bugman.

Now, unfortunately, I suspect there must be some quite mundane explanation for these micro-payments. But such an explanations don't satisfy my curiosity. Some readers wondered too. "Of course, you have to wonder how that $20 was exchanged. Almost like a tip on the way out the door or something," one reader wrote.

And I'm thinking this may be right. Perhaps a tip? Or a generous payment for a shoe-shine? Or maybe like some congressional version of that weird thing your grandpa used to do just before you left when he'd put your hand in his and then suddenly that one dollar bill he'd furtively placed in his hand was in yours?

Okay lets try this

Okay, let's try this one more time.

From <$NoAd$>the Associated Press on Rep. Istook's statement ...

Istook, chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, said in a statement Sunday that the Internal Revenue Service drafted the language, which would not have allowed any inspections of tax returns. "Nobody's privacy was ever jeopardized," the statement said.

The actual text Rep. Istook inserted into the bill ...

Hereinafter, 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.

Abuse of power or poor reading comprehension? We report; you decide.

[ed. note: Emphasis added in above quotes. Special thanks to TPM reader DC.]

Rep. Istook says its

Rep. Istook says it's all a big misunderstanding (from the Times)

Representative Ernest Istook, Republican of Oklahoma, who was responsible for the insertion of the tax provision in the 3,000-page, $388 billion legislation that provides financing for most of the government, issued a statement on Sunday saying that the language had actually been drafted by the Internal Revenue Service and that "nobody's privacy was ever jeopardized." Mr. Istook is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that has authority over the I.R.S. budget.

John D. Scofield, the spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said that the purpose of the provision was to allow investigators for the top lawmakers responsible for financing the I.R.S. to have access to that agency's offices around the country and tax records so they could examine how the money was being spent. There was never any desire to look at anyone's tax returns, he said.

Mr. Scofield said the only purpose of the provision was to allow investigators to have access to revenue service offices. He said the authority would be similar to that allowed senior members and staff assistants of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee, the panels with primary jurisdiction over the activities of the revenue service.


Mr. Scofield, the spokesman for the House committee, called the entire matter "a tempest in a teapot" and said Mr. Istook and his colleagues had no objection to the removal of the authority.

"We don't really care," Mr. Scofield said Sunday in an interview. "It was an honest attempt to do oversight. If they want to take it out, fine."

Mr. Scofield said he found it strange that senators felt they were taken by surprise. He noted that the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Bill Young, Republican of Florida, had discussed it briefly on the House floor, and that the language had been available since Thursday for Senate staff members to read.

Similar, just without any privacy <$NoAd$>laws applying.

Two stories ...First from

Two stories ...

First, from Saturday night's <$NoAd$> article in the Associated Press ...

"There will be no window where this will be law," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said. He referred to the provision as the Istook amendment, and congressional aides said it was put in the bill at the request of Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee.

Then this morning on Face The Nation ...

SCHIEFFER: Should someone who put that in the bill be fired, Senator?

Sen. FRIST: No. Oh, I have no earthly idea how it got there.

SCHIEFFER: Do you even know who put it in the bill?

Sen. FRIST: I personally don't know but obviously somebody's going to know and accountability will be carried out. It was wrong. Everybody says--nobody's going to defend this. I wouldn't even spend any more time on it. It was fixed.


And finally Sen. Hutchison on Wolf's show ...

Wolf, if I could, I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that that clause that was inserted about IRS documents or people's tax returns being able to be gotten to by any member of Congress or any staff -- can't be blamed on the right wing. That's totally inappropriate. I don't think we know how that got in, and I can't -- it's not fair to put blame. It's just not fair.

Not fair I tell you!

Its worth noting that

It's worth noting that the "Istook Amendment" (see the last post about the technical issue of whether it's an 'amendment' or a 'provision') was discovered in the appropriations bill by a staffer for North Dakota's Kent Conrad. And Conrad is right at the top of the list of senators the GOP is going to try to knock out in 2006.

That, presumably, will clear the way for other middle-of-the-night Istook Amendments.

Could this be what

Could this be what he's after?

A reader points out that what we're referring to as the "Istook Amendment" doesn't sound like an 'amendment', properly speaking. If I understand what happened correctly, this was language slipped during reconciliation. The phrase comes from the AP article quoting Sen. Bill Frist. And I don't know whether Frist misspoke or the AP misquoted him.

In any case, this language raises an interesting point and may give us some indication of what Rep. Istook was after.

If you do a Google search for "Istook Amendment" you'll get quite a number of hits. There've been at least two Istook Amendments before this one. But the phrase is most commonly associated with an amendment Istook tried to get attached to a number of bills in the mid-90s that would have placed tough restrictions on political advocacy by tax exempt organizations that receive federal funds.

Here's an example that illustrates the issue -- and I preface this with a warning that I'm sure I'll be oversimplifying or getting some nuances of the issue wrong.

Planned Parenthood may receive a federal grant for, say, doing an STD awareness program or doing free STD testing in low income areas. Planned Parenthood also does public advocacy on behalf of birth control and sex ed. and abortion rights. The federal grant is dedicated specifically at that one program while the advocacy work is funded by foundation grants or private contributions or whatever.

Istook would say, all money's fungible. So same difference. The federal government is actually funding Planned Parenthood's lobbying on behalf of reproductive rights.

Let's set aside for the moment whether his argument makes sense. If you were really interested in this issue -- as Istook clearly is -- you'd be very interested in seeing the tax returns of the organizations in question to see if they're really segregating the money as they say they are.

So maybe that's what this was all about. That's just speculation, of course. But there was clearly some motive behind this. The language in the provision is too specific and carefully crafted to admit of any 'accident' explanation.