Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2004 / 2 Teves 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Call from a congressman | When I came in and saw the call slip, and the name on it, I had a pretty good idea what The Hon. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) wanted to talk about. Since I'd just written some less than flattering things about his role in the latest outrage perpetrated on the American taxpayer.

It seems somebody had inserted a lulu of a clause in the massive spending bill that Congress tends to rush into law toward the end of every session. This year's omnibus bill was 3,646 pages long, and it was passed in one of those sleep-deprived marathons that have come to mark the end of each congressional session.

One sentence, buried in this mountain of text, would have allowed the chairmen of the two congressional committees on appropriations - and anyone they cared to designate! - to examine any citizen's tax return. Yes, including yours, Gentle Taxpayer. And to make that information public. Notwithstanding any and all laws currently on the books that properly make such a violation of privacy the criminal offense it should be.

My first reaction was to gulp, my second to vent. Wouldn't you?

I re-read my column before returning the congressman's call - just to be prepared. (Gosh, columnists hate it when their targets fire back!) To my vast relief, I'd spelled Mr. Istook's name right. And, yes, I had him heading the right subcommittee, the one in charge of overseeing the Infernal Revenue Service. And, yes, I still couldn't imagine any acceptable excuse for his letting this joker in a 3,646-page deck get as far as it did.

Having steeled myself, I called the congressman back and promptly melted. He turned out to be as nice as your favorite kind of pie, explaining that he was not responsible for introducing this explosive little proviso, and that Bill Frist, the Republican leader over in The Other Chamber, had apologized for linking his name to it. (Which was fine with me. That's Dr. Frist's lookout.)

"Nobody likes to be criticized," confided the congressman, one adult to another, and by the time he was finished I understood why he's been elected and re-elected for more than a decade now. The man knows how to do.

Not that I'd take back anything I'd said, but after talking to such a quiet, reasonable gentleman, I almost felt sorry I'd had to say it. He sounded like the kind of guy you'd be happy to have a cup of coffee with over that piece of pie. (Make mine lemon icebox.)

In short, it was just about the best disagreement I've ever had. Maybe 'tis the season. It was such a civilized argument, it almost made me want to start another.

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I couldn't help but think how much manners have improved in Washington since the time, as a novice editorial writer, I'd been reamed out by an expert at it, the late great Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas, His Huffiness himself. It had been a long-distance conversation - thank goodness, or I'd never have survived - but it sounded as if the old boy was standing at my elbow and shouting into both ears.

Remembering that long-ago exchange with Senator McClellan, rest his soul, made me think all the better of Congressman Istook and these milder times in general. (At least until the next irate Clintonoid calls to chew me out for not paying proper reverence to the newly opened Clinton Library and Holy Shrine here in Little Rock.)

But there was also something worrisome about the congressman's oh-so-calm style, welcome as it was. He showed (a) no curiosity about who put this provision into the bill, as if he knew who'd done it but didn't want to pursue the matter, and (b) no outrage at whoever had embarrassed him - along with the rest of Congress, too. Sometimes a politician can be too calm. Instead of outraged, the congressman sounded only defensive.

Meanwhile, the congressional aide mainly responsible for getting this provision into the bill has been outed: He's a veteran bureaucrat named Rich Efford, who'd taken it amiss when he was denied entrance to an IRS office in Albuquerque last summer. And so he decided to strike back, moved by what sounds like wounded pride and general turf consciousness. Big mistake. He's now sullied a 19-year record on the staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

In light of his long service, Mr. Efford may not deserve to lose his job, but he does need to be disciplined. The appropriate punishment? How about making his income tax return public? No, that would be cruel and too just punishment. Maybe just the embarrassment will suffice.

Or maybe not. Because, although I've been surfing the Net and googling all the new stories about this fiasco, I have yet to hear anyone involved in this fiasco say the three magic words that would clear the air: "I am sorry."

The collective culprit in this $388-billion mess (that's how much spending was approved in this year's end-of-session rush) is Congress itself. This year members and their staffs were working almost 'round the clock to finish up and get out of town.

Congress could straighten out its act by observing the three-day waiting period formally required before completing action on such a bill. Instead, the House and Senate both regularly waive that sensible rule.

Back in 1993, a Republican congressman from California - David Dreier, who's now chairman of the House Rules Committee - had a good idea:

Require a super-majority of Congress, like a two-thirds' vote of the full House, to set aside the three-day rule now on the books. Instead of treating it as just a formality. It's still a good idea, and Brian Baird - a Democratic congressman from the state of Washington - has just proposed it again.

Congress needs to adopt such a safeguard. The embarrassment it saves could be its own.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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