Many members of Congress go to Washington each year with fanciful dreams of changing the culture. They get there and are overwhelmed by the inertia of the place and by the entrenched bureaucracy, including bureaucracy in Congress that was originally designed to help the place function. Today one member of Congress just might be ready to wage war on the system.

Congressman Ernest J. Istook, Jr. the Representative of the 5th Congressional District of Oklahoma, is chairman of the Transportation and Treasury Appropriations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Mr. Istook, being one of the Cardinals of the House, gets to set the budget for the IRS.

As the omnibus spending bill made its way through the special interest greased halls of the Capitol, someone put a little noticed provision into it. The language would allow open season on citizen tax returns. The provision would, in effect, allow lawmakers and IRS staffers, among others, to look at a person’s tax return — not necessarily with the person’s permission.

Congressman Istook is now taking lots of heat. Today he issued a statement admitting to problems in the congressional bureaucratic process.

I didn’t write it; I didn’t approve it; I wasn’t even consulted.  My name shouldn’t be associated with it, because I had nothing to do with it, and didn’t even know about it until after the bill was done and was filed.”
“We have a problem with how bills like this are put together.  On occasions, appropriations staff will take the initiative to insert language they believe will be non-controversial.  They do this with the approval of full committee staff, but without the knowledge or approval of subcommittee chairman like me.  That is what happened in this case.
“We have a chain of command problem over whether the subcommittee staff are ultimately accountable to the full committee staff—who represent the full committee chairman—or to the subcommittee chairman.  The subcommittee chairman should never be bypassed like I was in this case.  I will work to fix this as part of the reorganization of the appropriations committee that will take place during the next several weeks.
“I’m satisfied that nobody intended to breach or to weaken the privacy laws that protect people’s tax returns.  But good intentions are no guarantee of good results.”

Istook says he is sure it was an honest mistake and that “there’s no conspiracy.” That is reassuring, but what is troubling is that “[t]he IRS drafted this language at staff request.” That is like letting the fox choose the padlock for the hen house. Another troubling issue is that, as these bills are winding through Congress, non-Congressmen are inserting provisions that might not be seen by Congressmen. Someone caught this provision. What provisions did not get caught in the multi-thousand page piece of legislation.