What you won't learn about the “Istook amendment” from The New York Times

In a November 22 New York Times article titled "G.O.P. Says Motive for Tax Clause in Budget Bill Was Misread" -- about a provision inserted into a $388 billion omnibus spending bill that would allow the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees to view federal tax returns -- reporter David E. Rosenbaum failed to verify claims made by people he quoted and omitted key pieces of information relevant to the story, including the exact language of the clause in question. While Rosenbaum filled in some additional details in a follow-up article on the subject published on November 23, he ignored contradictions between the two stories and failed to point out that an unverified claim made by a Republican committee staff member he quoted the previous day was, in fact, false.

Media Matters for America has compiled a list of key points a reader will not pick up from the Times' coverage of this subject:

-- That the language of the provision conflicts directly with what Republicans say was intended

While Rosenbaum correctly reported in his November 22 article that a provision was inserted into the budget bill (H.R. 4818) recently passed by the House and Senate that would explicitly authorize the chairmen of the House or Senate appropriations committees to inspect individual tax returns, he reported without rebuttal: “Republican leaders said that their motives had been misread and that there was never any intention to invade the privacy of taxpayers.”

Rosenbaum quoted Representative Ernest Istook Jr. (R-OK) as saying that “nobody's privacy was ever jeopardized” by the provision and reported that, according to House Appropriations Committee spokesman John D. Scofield, “the only purpose was to allow investigators to have access to revenue service offices” in order to “examine how the money was being spent.” While only those members and staffers responsible for the provision can truly know their own intent, the language of the provision, which Rosenbaum did not quote in the article, flatly conflicts with Istook's and Scofield's claims. The provision clearly authorizes not just access to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) facilities, but also to any and all information contained within, including tax returns.

Here is the text of the provision:

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.

In the follow-up November 23 article, Rosenbaum did include the relevant language from the provision but still neglected to tell his readers that this language was in conflict with the claims Istook and the committee staff made the previous day.

-- That a GOP staffer falsely suggested that members of Congress were notified of the provision's impact

On November 22, Rosenbaum passed along a claim by Scofield that senators should not have been surprised by the existence of this provision because Representative C.W. Bill Young (R-FL), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had previously spoken “briefly” about the provision on the House floor. Rosenbaum did not verify either that Young had actually spoken about the provision on the floor or, if he did, that he had accurately characterized it. In fact, Young had spoken about the provision. Young's comments were made in an exchange with Representative Bill Thomas (R-CA), on the floor of the House.

But while Rosenbaum did verify in the November 23 article that Young had spoken about the provision on the House floor, he failed to point out that Scofield's defense was misleading. Scofield falsely suggested that Young's floor statement had put members on notice about the provision. In fact, while Young did talk about the provision, he mischaracterized it, wrongly asserting that Thomas was “correct” in his understanding that the provision did not allow for the examination of “individual tax returns, data or information.”

-- Whether GOP senators who expressed outrage over the provision attempted to confirm that the bill contained no other objectionable provisions before they voted for it

Rosenbaum quoted Senators Bill Frist (R-TN), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) Ted Stevens (R-AK), and John McCain (R-AZ), expressing disapproval of the provision's insertion into the spending bill, which came to light only after it was discovered by the staff of Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), as the Associated Press reported. Hutchison noted that "[s]omething happened clearly in the dark of night."

Rosenbaum did not indicate whether he had asked Frist, Hutchison or Stevens -- all of whom voted for the final bill -- or their staff if they were satisfied that no other objectionable provisions had been inserted into the bill without their knowledge. (According to an article in the November 21 New York Times, the Senate went forward with the final vote after obtaining a commitment from House leaders that they would join the Senate in passing a resolution to strip the provision from the bill before it went to President George W. Bush for his signature). And Rosenbaum certainly did not note what is widely recognized as the far broader problem -- congressional leaders give members little or no time to read legislation before voting on it. According to the Associated Press, Conrad described the problem as “the recent trend in Congress not to pass spending bills by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year and then have to combine unpassed bills into giant omnibus packages before Congress adjourns for the year.” The AP quoted Conrad saying that "'there is no earthly way' for lawmakers and their staffs to learn what's in these bills in the few hours they have to inspect them before the vote. 'What else is in this stack of paper that people don't know about?' [he] asked."

-- Who was responsible for writing the provision and for inserting it into the bill

On November 22, Rosenbaum asserted that Istook “was responsible for the insertion of the tax provision.” But on November 23, he reported that Istook denied responsibility. While Rosenbaum does note that Istook's later denial is inconsistent with his previous statements regarding the provision, Rosenbaum did not acknowledge in the later story that he had himself been inconsistent in reporting responsibility for the amendment.