A story in the Washington Post (yes, yes, registration required) sheds some light on that issue with who put a provision in the Omnibus Spending Bill that allowed members of the Appropriations Committees and their staff to walk in and see a private citizen’s tax returns. Without further ado:
|::::::::|| A mid-level House aide said yesterday that he was the one who, during last month’s drafting of a huge spending bill, added a provision that could give staffers on the House and Senate appropriations committees broad access to Americans’ tax returns.
Richard E. Efford, a 19-year veteran of the House Appropriations Committee, said he did not inform any elected official before inserting the provision and advised his immediate boss, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), only after it was too late to make changes. He said other House and Senate appropriations staffers in both parties were aware of the provision, however, and believed it gave them needed authority to enter facilities of the Internal Revenue Service to inspect how taxpayer funds were being used.
Mr. Efford is reportedly “dumbfounded” by the resulting uproar. Seems he ran into an issue in overseeing the budget of the IRS – something his office does for his boss, Rep. Istook – over performing on-site inspections to validate the IRS’s requested increases. The IRS, he says, told him he couldn’t do that since he might walk in and “glance at” a taxpayer’s return up on a screen. That’s a privacy no-no and, well, the IRS is nothing if not concerned about your privacy.
Brief thought: these same people get security clearances to allow them to view details of the latest top-secret weapons programs in order to oversee budgets, but they can’t glance at a screen with some random person’s tax return? So long as they can’t order up a specific person’s return, I’d say we need to discuss whether that’s an issue.
The story continues:
|::::::::|| IRS officials suggested that he seek authorization from the House Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman has a right under the tax code to designate staffers to examine returns and files for the purpose of assessing the effectiveness of tax law.
“I thought, why should Appropriations Committee staff have to go beg another committee for the right to review how appropriated funds were being used,” Efford said.
The matter, he said, was discussed with other committee staffers this fall. Efford said a Democratic staffer told him he had had a similar problem getting access to the IRS facilities. As a result, Efford said, he wrote language that would amend the tax code to give him and other Appropriations staffers the same inspection rights as Ways and Means personnel.
Sources said that idea was discarded because of concerns about turf conflicts with Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the powerful and sometimes irascible Ways and Means chairman. Efford said he then asked the IRS to produce a provision that would satisfy the service’s concerns.
With only one or two words changed, said Efford, that was that language that went into the spending bill. It was broad. It set aside existing privacy protections and gave the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees power to designate staffers who would have “access to Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein.”
This is the crux of the action and the source of the “uproar” Mr. Efford is so dumbfounded by. Well, let me clear some of that up for Mr. Efford. First, you’re not an elected official, pal. That means you run any additions to bills being presented to Congress past your boss, every stinking time, period – end of story. No exceptions! None! And if timing is a problem, as you kept saying in the story, then you bloody well didn’t get started early enough, now did you?! You had all friggin’ year, Efford, how long does it take to get your ass in gear and start thinking about it? Apply that to the rest of your buddies on the Staff, too – they’re equally responsible for that. I don’t care how tired or overworked you were, the concept of a staffer of the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee including language in bill that he didn’t bother to notify the Chairman of that grants himself powers to bypass privacy restrictions looks like, sounds like, and smells like a conflict of interest. The fact that the language was run past the Agency you’re trying to oversee – thereby allowing that Agency to tailor the rules by which it will be held accountable! – only makes it worse! You’re allowing them to abdicate their responsibility to safeguard the taxpayers’ privacy rights and blame it on a law you altered for the purpose. What your Democratic counterpart (who, conveniently, isn’t named in the story) said after reading it should have been a real clue:
|::::::::||The blunt language did raise a concern from a Senate Democratic staffer who suggested in an e-mail: “I wonder if you want to say something . . . clarifying that this is just to allow observation of facilities. A naive reading can leave the impression that certain staffers can go look at their brother-in-law’s tax return for grins.”||::::::::|
Funny how everybody who read that same language came to exactly the same conclusion. And a quick thank you to the unnamed Democratic staffer, by the way, for adding “naive” to the list of things we poor, stupid citizens are guilty of being. Nice to be held in such high regard these days.
The fix for this is really simple. Under no circumstances should language be added to a bill being submitted to Congress by any staffer that is not proofread and approved by the Congressional member they work for. Any further such screw-ups will be the responsibility of the elected official those staffers work for. Citizens don’t get to choose who the staffers are and we can’t vote them out if they hose things up. We can hold the elected reps to account, however, and they should be made to accept that responsibility.
For those of you who missed it, I’d like to re-report that Sgt. Hook has returned home from Afghanistan. Hook is – actually, was – the First Sergeant of a Hawaii-based Army chopper unit whose job it was to give the “air” and “mobile” to “air-mobile” Army units operating over in the ‘Stan. His eyes on the ground over there were an invaluable asset to those of us who want to stay informed about the real happenings overseas.
Hook’s entries offered a great personal perspective into the Afghan operations over the course of the last 8 months which included, if you’ll recall, the highly successful, first-ever, elections there. Hook was also the founder of Operation Shoe Fly which provided shoes to Afghani kids of all sizes over there. His blog is a great read and I recommend it. Perhaps the best entries are the ones where he details how he did this or that or speaks on his travel to and from. His latest is on his waiting for a flight to Germany. Sounds like a common experience, based on what I’ve been told by returning members of the military in this area!
|::::::::||Stepping into the plywood passenger terminal, I dropped the duffel at my feet with a “clunk” and sat down on one of the dozen couches that were lined dress right dress in rows of three facing a large screen television airing the Armed Forces Network to help those of us waiting to catch a flight outof the Stan pass the time. There was no travel agent to book my ticket out of the desert, so I silently hoped that a good dose of patience and a lot of AFN would be enough to keep my sanity as I waited to begin the first leg of my long journey home. A large white dry-erase board hung on the wall next to the televeision screen with the schedule of outgoing flights hand written in blue ink. Noticing that I was in luck, only two hours until the next scheduled flight to Germany, I settled in for the wait. It wasn’t long until the announcement was made for “those passengers wishing to travel to Germany to please report to the manifest window with a copy of their orders.” I obediently reported to the manifest window with a copy of my orders in my hand.
We were notified that the flight had been cancelled and that there were no seats available on the following one, but there was a flight with some thirty open seats scheduled in about eleven hours. I sat back down and waited noticing on the mission board that a red line had been drawn through the listed flight I had anticipated being on. What the hell, eleven hours really isn’t that long of a time compared to eight months. Sgt Hook out.
As he says, the Army goes rolling along. To Hook and his family, I’m glad you’ve returned to America. That you returned to the Pearl of the Pacific is only better. Mahalo, Hook, and Aloha!