The Internal Revenue Service has changed its mind about telling the public when a member of Congress or other federal official calls or writes the service on behalf of a taxpayer. Last year the IRS said it would publicize such contracts, but now it has decided not to.
Last year the IRS issued a public statement announcing its intention to publicize these inquiries to reduce what was termed "political interfernce" in the service's deliberations.
This year, however, there was no public statement on the decision to abandon that idea. It took a reporter from The Wall Street Journal to get the IRS to acknowledge its change of heart.
The original disclosure plan was apparently developed by former IRS Commissioner Donal C. Alexander as a response to criticism that the service had been manipulated by outside political influence. The announcement of the new policy in May, 1976, followed reports that former Sen. Joseph M. Montoya (D.N.M.) and Rep. Al Ullman (D-Ore.) had both tried to influence the IRS.
The original idea was to publicze any contact made by a member of Congress or other federal official with the IRS, but without indicating on whose behalf the contact was made.
According to Leon Leviine, spokesman for the IRS, IRS lawyers have now decided that such disclosure would violate provisions of the 1976 amendments to the Internal Revenue Code, which included new restrictions on public disclosure.
Levine said the lawyers believed that revealing an outside contact might infringe on "tax return information" - that is, information about specific citizens' tax returns or dealings with the IRS. On the basis, Levine claimed, the IRS has now decided it, can't publicize those contacts.
Congressional sources who participated in the drafting of the 1976 disclosure provisions said this was a ridiculous interpretation, since the IRS specifically envisioned excising any reference to specific taxpayers from the information on congressional and federal inquiries that it planned to release.
However, the same sources made independent inquiries and said the new IRS decision was really made because the new leadership in the service had decided that it would be meaningless simply to release the name of a member of congress if he or she made an inquiry to the IRS about a constituent's tax problems.
Levine acknowledged that the original plan to release names of officials who made these inquiries would have created a lot of new work for IRS officials. But he stuck by his original explanation of the new change of heart as based on a legal interpretation.