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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
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Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Mark Kleiman is willing to buy the explanation the the recent Istook/not-Istook provision snafu was probably just an innocent accident. I'm not prepared to be so generous.

There are a few problems with Mark's position. A minor one is that he dismisses the spin as "far too complicated to be an effective political response" and therefore probably true. That seems to be an argument that rather contradicts itself. If the official explanation is one that a skeptical, even outright hostile, observer like Prof. Kleiman is ready to go for, it seems to be a pretty effective response.

There's a more serious and substantial argument found in the language of the bill itself. The provision was supposedly intended merely to enable Congressional oversight. Oversight is traditionally, and for very good reasons, a bipartisan responsibility. I'd be willing to yield to a real expert in this topic, which I make no claim of being, but I know of no instance where existing law relegates oversight authority solely to the majority party. Even in the area where it would be most natural, briefing Congressional leaders on intelligence operations too sensitive to reveal to the general Intelligence Committee membership, the practice is to brief both the Chairman and the ranking minority member, although this doubles the possibility of a leak.

Compare the language of the proposed amendment: "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." That grants sweeping, unrestricted powers to the majority - and nothing whatsoever to the minority. The aggressively partisan nature of the grant persuades me that those who wrote it knew and intended what they were doing.

The claim is that the new bill grants the Appropriations Committees "similar powers to enter IRS facilities and examine tax returns as are now available to the tax-writing committees of the two chambers". But are the existing powers really granted exclusively to the majority? And if extending the same access was the purpose, why not just incorporate the language that granted those rights from earlier legislation?

Finally, even if Prof. Kleiman is right about this bill and I'm wrong, criticism of the Republican leadership in this instance is still entirely justified, not only politiically but morally. The excuse for the provision being in the budget reconciliation bill in the first place has been simply that 'the system is broken'. But the current system, in which huge, complex bills are extensively rewritten in secret proceedings, numerous provisions inserted without any lawmaker having to be publicly accountable for the insertions, and the whole mess then sent to the floor and voted on before the membership has had time to examine what's in the bill, is one that was designed by the current leadership and has been used repeatedly for just this purpose - inserting unpopular provisions into laws and getting them enacted. For just one recent example, the Bush rules eliminating overtime for millions of workers were rejected in an open vote - giving vulnerable Republicans the ability to tell their constituents they had voted against the rules - then quietly inserted into an unrelated bill.