Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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?

Many of you have asked if we'll be putting together a tally of how each Republican member of the House voted on the DeLay Rule. We won't. But the Daily DeLay website is doing such a running tally, based on information from TPM and other sources.

According to their latest tally, only 42 reps. have been willing to say publicly that they voted for the DeLay Rule -- a rule which reportedly passed overwhelmingly on a voice-vote in a caucus of over 230 members.

Let's recap what we know at the <$Ad$>moment.

This weekend Congress was working on a massive $388 billion omnibus spending bill that will cover all manner of federal spending. But at the request of Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, a special provision was inserted into the bill which allows the Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees or their "agents" to review any American's tax return with no restrictions whatsoever.

Specifically, none of the privacy law restrictions -- or the criminal and civil penalties tied to them -- would apply when the Chair or anybody he or she designates as his or her "agent" looked at your tax return.

The exact language of the provision is as follows ...

"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."

The provision was slipped into the bill at the last moment. And, at least on the Democratic side, no one was told about it until some Dems caught it at the last moment.

Senate Republicans quickly backtracked, calling the provision a mistake or snafu and insisting they knew nothing about it. You can see some of the back-and-forth that took place on the Senate floor in this AP piece at CNN.

Sen. Stevens of Alaska, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, originally blamed the provision on a 'staffer'. But later, according to the AP, Sen. Frist and "congressional aides" said it was inserted at the behest of Rep. Istook.

And in case you're wondering, Istook's staffers are apparently telling constituents that Rep. Istook had to step out of the room for a moment when the DeLay Rule was being voted on.

Maybe he had to finish reading over Ronnie Earle's tax return?

Some things, like the DeLay Rule, are outrageous but not that surprising.

But what I'm about to describe is outrageous and almost literally unbelievable.

As you've probably heard, the congress is pushing through a big omnibus spending bill this weekend. And at the last minute, Republican leaders tried to slip in a provision that would give certain committee chairman and their staffers unlimited access to any American's tax return, with none of the standard privacy protections applying.

You heard that right.

They could pull anyone's tax return, read it over and do whatever they wanted with the information. Those who would have this power would be the chairs and ranking members of the senate and house appropriations committees and subcommittees and "their designees."

The key is that the privacy rights provisions, and criminal and civil penalties that go with them, don't apply for the appropriations committees.

At the last minute, Senate Democrats caught the language (keep in mind these omnibus bills can be like phone books), protested and the Republicans beat a hasty retreat. Some of it is discussed in this AP article at MSNBC, though they lamely call it a "tax-disclosure gaffe."

The Republicans are acting like it was all an innocent mistake. And it seems clear that there are Republican senators who didn't know anytihng about it and are pissed. But clearly this was no accident, unless provisions have started to write themselves.

More soon.

Late Update: Here is the text of the provision in question (emphasis added)

"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."

Even Later Update: Apparently the provision was placed into the bill at the request of Rep. Istook of Oklahoma. Istook is chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee.

I'm not sure if it's relevant to what happened here, but the Treasury Department falls under the jurisdiction of Istook's subcommittee.

The anti-Ronnie Earle campaign is kicking off on the Texas Republican party website, along with a petition to strip Earle's office of jurisdiction over DeLay and Co.'s campaign finance and other in proper use of public office shenanigans.

Breaking the law has consequences. And Tom DeLay is going to do everything in his power to avoid them -- with the help of the House GOP caucus, the Republican party of Texas, and of course the DeLay Machine, which David Brooks rightly compares to the machine Boss Tweed ran in New York during the Gilded Age.

Breaking DeLay Rule newsflash out of Minnesota, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Like a scattering of papers around the country today (see below), the Star Tribune went down the list of their local GOP congressmen and put the question to them straight out: how'd you vote on the DeLay Rule.

As reported earlier on TPM, Jim Ramstad's in the Shays Handful voting against. Gil Gutknecht couldn't make it to the meeting but wants to be included in the Handful after the fact.

But Mark Kennedy and John Kline drawing a "private vote" line in the sand.

But in a hint at what Kline's private vote might have been, the congressman's chief of staff Steve Sutton says Kline is "perfectly comfortable with the compromise that's been reached."

New Jersey Flash Update!

The Asbury Park Press tracked down Congressmen LoBiondo, Saxton and Garrett and got them to admit they supported the DeLay Rule. Chris Smith told the paper he couldn't make the meeting and wouldn't say whether he was in the Handful or down with DeLay.

Ferguson and Frelinghuysen couldn't be reached; though Ferguson staffers have already conceded to TPM reader-constituents that he supported the DeLay Rule.

For Saxton it's a hard but rapid fall from 'private vote' to letter-writer to just coming clean.