President Bush this week signed into law a less intrusive version of a sweeping $388 billion legislative package that covers the spending of early every federal agency.

The president approved the 2005 Appropriations Bill on Wednesday, just two days after the House unanimously passed a measure amending the bill to remove a controversial provision that would have made it easier for some members of Congress and their aides to access federal income tax returns.

Congress had passed the package Nov. 20, but held off sending it to President Bush after controversy erupted over language in the spending bill that would have required the Internal Revenue Service to provide designated agents of the House or Senate Appropriations Committee with access to IRS facilities and tax return information.

House aide Richard E. Efford, a 19-year veteran of the House Appropriations Committee, took responsibility for adding the provision, which would have authorized "agents" of the House or Senate Committee on Appropriations to have access to IRS facilities "and any tax returns contained therein."

Efford reportedly said that he didn't inform any elected official before inserting the provision and advised his immediate boss, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., only after it was too late to make changes. According to The Washington Post, the genesis of the provision was problems Efford encountered this summer when he sought agency permission to visit an IRS facility where tax returns were being processed.

In a letter last week to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said that he regretted the agency's role in the incident and that he supported deleting the measure form the final bill.

In response to Conrad's query on the matter, Everson said that IRS personnel, at the request of the House Appropriations Committee staff, provided draft language that was "substantially similar" to what appeared in the conference report, but noted that there was "no intention to allow Appropriations Committee staff to have access to tax returns or return information under any less stringent restrictions than those that apply to the tax-writing committee staffs."

"It was unfortunate that in their desire to provide a prompt reply to the request from the House Appropriations Committee staff, the Legislative Affairs staff members failed to draft language that accomplished the intended purpose," Everson wrote.

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