The Senate Finance Committee has pledged to effectively lock up until the end of 2064 any submissions it receives from senators in response to the chair and ranking minority member's call for feedback on tax provisions that should make it into a new tax code -- an odd procedure that has apparently prompted more senators to engage in the process.
In a July 19 memo, Finance Committee staff attempted to allay some senators' fears that their priorities and proposals would be leaked, writing that the submissions would be treated as "committee confidential material" and would remain as such until the end of 2064. "All materials deemed Committee Confidential shall be archived separately from the Committee's legislative records in a secure location," the memo said. "Records designated Committee Confidential shall not be made public until December 31, 2064."
Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., told Tax Analysts he doesn't know if the procedure has ever been used before but that his committee's decision to use it has been "very positive because all senators on and off the committee are now participating."
Asked if that meant all 100 senators, Baucus responded in the affirmative, saying, "Certainly, if they're able to."
A Finance Committee spokeswoman clarified that Baucus's statement that all senators are participating does not mean the committee will receive 100 written submissions by the July 26 deadline. Baucus has held conversations with several senators in an effort to involve them in the tax reform process, the spokeswoman said.
Baucus told reporters earlier in the month that submissions would remain confidential to elicit more candid responses from members. Some senators have expressed concern that those submissions would eventually be leaked.
The protocol described in the memo is not new, but it did catch some lawmakers by surprise, including Finance ranking minority member Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.
"Well, who said that?" Hatch asked when told about the pledge to keep the submissions confidential for 50 years. "They won't be confidential if we're all working together. I mean sooner or later some of these things will come out. But they should be confidential so that people will work with us more."
Later, Hatch confessed he had not read the memo. "I didn't realize that was staff protocol on the Finance Committee. . . . I was as shocked as you were," he told reporters. "But I think it's a good protocol because it says to people that things we do on the committee can be kept confidential."
Hatch added that a lot of senators will just meet with him and Baucus in person to discuss their ideas, noting he has already met with at least five on the topic.
According to a Finance aide, the memo was provided at the request of Senate offices to reassure them that submissions would not be made public. "Senators Baucus and Hatch are going out of their way to assure their colleagues they will keep the submissions in confidence," the aide told Tax Analysts.
Submitted documents, however, could be released before 2065 if information identifying the sender was redacted.
"The 50-year rule is the practice for all congressional committees and generally covers oversight and investigative materials and related work product, as well as all nomination materials," the Finance aide said.
Senate Finance Committee member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Tax Analysts he never invoked the 50-year rule when he chaired the Finance Committee. "I don't fault the people who do promise it, but I think it's kind of idealistic," he said, adding that he doesn't believe the submissions will remain confidential. Grassley was on the committee in 1986, the last time Congress undertook a serious tax overhaul.
"I've been here for 43 years and have never heard anything that ridiculous," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., House Ways and Means Committee member and former chair, who also participated in the 1986 tax reform effort. "I don't see why in the world recommendations made by members to improve the tax system would be treated like it's a top-secret document."
Michael M. Gleeson contributed to this article.
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