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What else is in the bill?

Byline: The Register-Guard

Members of Congress were alarmed to learn Saturday that they had passed a provision allowing certain congressmen and their staffs to inspect any American's income tax returns. The single chillingly invasive sentence was buried in a 3,000-page spending bill.

Some of the relevant committee chairmen say they don't know where the sentence came from, while others claim it wasn't intended to mean what it plainly said. Neither defense is reassuring.

Here's what the bill says: "Hereafter, 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 opaque language can't obscure the fact that the law would open any taxpayer's IRS forms to congressional snooping.

The most benign interpretation is that the sentence was a hurried, clumsily worded attempt to give Congress the authority it needs to oversee the IRS. That's how Rep. C.W. Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, explains the provision. If Congress is approving bills so sloppily drafted that they inadvertently open the door to invasions of privacy, the IRS is not alone in needing oversight.

Young's account, however, is plausible. No one in Congress had time to read the 14-inch-thick spending bill. Members relied on summaries and staff reports to understand what was in the legislation.

A House rule requires that members be given three days to read bills, but the rule is routinely waived. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon says the House often votes on bills the pages of which are still warm from the photocopier, including such important legislation as the USA Patriot Act.

Congress now must return to Washington, D.C., to repeal the IRS provision. It's a massive inconvenience for members, who thought they had finished the current session. Perhaps this will cause Congress to reflect on the fact that the three-day rule should be respected.

It might also lead members to leaf through the spending bill, and see what else might be tucked away in those 3,000 pages.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Taxpayer privacy violation almost passed
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 26, 2004
Previous Article:A sorry spending bill.
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