Josh Marshall

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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 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 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!

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 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.

Notta lotta attention.

As near <$Ad$>as I can tell, there's only one article (by Matt Yancey of the AP) that's appeared so far devoted to the Istook Amendment, the provision in the new omnibus spending bill which would allow the Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to review the tax return of any individual, business or organization in the country with no privacy protections whatsoever.

Yes, there are a few references to it here and there in other pieces, but only one on that topic specifically and only one that refers to its apparent author.

On the other hand, here's an exchange on the matter between Tim Russert and John McCain this morning on Meet The Press ...

MR. RUSSERT: In the House version of this spending bill, there was a provision which said that the Appropriations Committee should have access to taxpayers' tax returns. How did that happen?

SEN. McCAIN: What happens here is that they slap these omnibus bills together--as you mentioned, this one's nine bills that we should have passed separately--nobody sees them or reads them. It was a 1,630- page document yesterday that was presented to us sometime in the morning, and we voted on it in the evening. The system is broken, and everybody, of course, wanted to get out of town, understandably.

MR. RUSSERT: Why should Congress have access to citizens' tax returns?

SEN. McCAIN: According to--Senator Stevens' explanation on the floor last night was that two staffers put in this provision and no one knew about it until another Senator Conrad staffer discovered it.

MR. RUSSERT: What was their motive?

SEN. McCAIN: That should--you know, I don't know. I can't imagine. But the fact that our system is such that that would ever be inserted and passed by the House of Representatives--if there's ever a graphic example of the broken system that we now have, that certainly has to be it.

MR. RUSSERT: House...

SEN. McCAIN: How many other provisions didn't we find in that 1,600-page bill?

MR. RUSSERT: That provision won't become law ever.

SEN. McCAIN: No. No. No. We worked out a procedure where the House--it doesn't matter but it'll be fixed, but the fact that it got in there in the first place is chilling.

Two points.

First, can someone ask Rep. Istook about this?

Second, it's a huge problem that these bills get voted through without most of the Senators and Representatives (or their staffers or relevant committee staffers) ever knowing all the provisions in the them. In most cases, the offending line items and provisions are pork barrel spending projects and special breaks for favored interests and constituents. But as big a problem as that is, it seems we've got a separate issue here because of the specific nature of this provision, no?

Yes, it would have been a bad thing if Rep. Istook had slotted in an item for some contributor from his district. But it would hardly have been uncommon. This seems rather different.

[ed.note: Thanks to TPM reader CK for the first tip on this matter yesterday evening.]

So I guess the questions on the Istook Amendment are pretty straightforward.

What is Rep. Istook's explanation for inserting the provision in the omnibus spending bill?

Subject to the quality of that explanation, will Rep. Istook face any disciplinary action, either formal or informal?

On the Senate floor, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens said that neither he nor House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young knew that provision had been inserted into the bill. Beside Istook, which members of congress and/or congressional staffers knew about the Istook Amendment prior to the matter being brought up by Senate Democrats?

Who gave the sign off to insert the provision into the bill?