Congressional gatekeepers control access to IRS records

Provision to extend access to heads of appropriations committees caused last-minute flap over fiscal 2005 omnibus spending bill.

The eleventh-hour fight that delayed the fiscal 2005 omnibus appropriations bill concerns a section of U.S. law governing congressional access to confidential IRS tax returns. That provision -- section 6103 -- grants authority to three individuals to control such access: the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and the chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Those three individuals serve as "gatekeepers" to confidential IRS information, with authority to extend that access to congressional staff or other interested parties, such as Government Accountability Office personnel, according to Senate Finance Committee aides.

That authority is used infrequently -- less than a couple of dozen times in a given year -- these aides said. It has been used in recent years in such cases as the congressional investigation of Enron's financial collapse and in efforts to track terrorist financing networks, they said. The joint committee may need access to confidential tax returns to estimate the revenue effects of certain legislation.

There is a defined process in place to ensure that taxpayer privacy is strictly protected, these aides said. It involves written authorization by one of the "gatekeepers" to individuals who are granted access, and a pledge in writing by those individuals not to disclose information to any unauthorized person.

The provision inserted into the omnibus to which Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., objected would not have included such strict confidentiality safeguards, they said. It would have granted the chairmen of the appropriations committees in each chamber similar access to confidential material.

"Basically it operates like a bubble. The bubble can be expanded by the gatekeeper" to include staff members, an aide said. "Anyone who shares the information outside the bubble bursts the bubble, and that's a criminal offense."

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