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."
But it attracted little attention, he said, because House and Senate appropriations aides in both parties were engaged in marathon negotiations to complete the 3,000-plus-page omnibus spending package the week before Thanksgiving.
"Everything was popping, and we said this is good because it comes from the IRS," Efford recalled.
Efford said he worked until 4 a.m. Nov. 18 and until 6 p.m. Nov. 19 to wrap up his section of the bill and got little sleep either day.
In this state, he said, he and other staffers missed the explosive implications, in part because they knew the spending bill already contained standard language, included annually, stating that "the Internal Revenue Service shall institute and enforce policies and procedures that will safeguard the confidentiality of taxpayer information."
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."
As a result, a statement was included in a separate report accompanying the bill indicating the provision was intended only to streamline oversight of the IRS.
Once the controversy erupted Nov. 20, Istook, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing IRS spending, jumped in to criticize the process. "The subcommittee chairman should never be bypassed like I was in this case," he said in a written statement. "We have a problem with how bills like this are put together."
"This was totally inadvertent that it would get to be a big flap," Efford said. "To hear senators talking about it as some kind of conspiracy for us to go in and cart off records. It was painful to listen to it. That was the hardest part, because it was not intended."