To hear Democrats’ questions today at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee on the IRS scandal, and to listen to the testimony of acting agency commissioner Steven Miller, the real victims are not, as Republicans argue, the conservative groups that were unfairly singled-out and penalized for their political beliefs.
No, the real victims are the IRS employees who now face “the stigma of corruption,” in the words of noted tax evader Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.). The scandal has been “damaging to morale,” Commissioner Miller said. “The perception is bad.”
Champions of big government felt that they needed to get their views in, too. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.) suggested that the targeting of conservative groups could be chalked up to “short cuts” taken by a hopelessly understaffed and underfunded revenue agency. Miller concurred — the IRS needs “a bigger budget” to prevent future abuses.
Some Democrats were visibly annoyed. “People are losing confidence in our government,” Rangel told Miller. The “cancer” within the agency needed to be cut out, and fast, in order to “restore the confidence Americans should have in their government.”
Yet Miller’s testimony did little to begin winning back such confidence. Like President Barack Obama, Miller appears to know little about the organization under his command beyond what he reads in the press. He couldn’t “recall” much of anything, including the name of the IRS employee who was primarily responsible for the targeting of conservative groups. “On the one hand, you’re arguing that the IRS is not corrupt,” observed Representative Peter Roskam (R., Ill.). “The subtext of that is that the IRS is incompetent.” Miller conceded that the IRS was guilty, but merely of “horrible customer service.”
Throughout the hearing, Miller struggled to explain why he failed to inform lawmakers about the IRS’s targeting during congressional testimony in 2012, even as he admitted to having known about it at the time. His testimony at the time may have been “incorrect,” he said, but not necessarily “untruthful.”
“I did not mislead Congress or the American people,” Miller said. “I answered the questions asked.” He even repeatedly rejected the notion that the IRS ever “targeted” conservative groups — the term used by Treasury inspector general J. Russell George, who also testified Friday. Miller dismissed the word as “loaded” and “pejorative.”
Congressmen asked about a number of conservative groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage and Crossroads GPS, whose confidential IRS documents were leaked to liberal watchdog group ProPublica in 2012. Those disclosures were “inadvertent,” Miller said.
At times, Republicans on the committee expressed legitimate shock at the acting commissioner’s responses. When he told Representative Tom Price of Georgia that he didn’t think the IRS had done anything illegal, several GOP members were literally wowed. Miller’s bumbling response to Illinois’s Representative Aaron Schock, who noted that the IRS had asked some religious groups to “detail the contents of your members’ prayers,” prompted a similar reaction.
The committee chamber was packed with conservative activists, many of whom had been personally affected by the scandal and had traveled to Washington, D.C., from across the country. No lawmaker channeled his frustration more effectively that Pennsylvania Republican Mike Kelly, who received a raucous ovation following his extended dressing down of Miller. “Where you’re sitting, you should be outraged, but you’re not,” he said, staring directly at the acting commissioner, who was seated just a few feet away. “The American people should be outraged. And they are.”
In at least one respect, Kelly agreed with his Democratic colleagues, telling Miller that the ongoing scandal is “a huge blow to the faith and trust the American people have in their government.” But pleading incompetence wouldn’t cut it, especially not from an agency like the IRS.
“You talk about [how] you’re a horribly run organization,” he told Miller. “If you’re on the other side of the fence, you’re not given that excuse. And when the IRS comes in, you’re not allowed to be shoddy, you’re not allowed to be run horribly, you’re not allowed to make mistakes, you’re not allowed to do one damn thing that doesn’t come in compliance, and if you do, you’re held responsible.”
In a sense, Miller has already been “held responsible” — he was asked to resign, though he temporary term was set to end on June 8. Another senior IRS official, Joseph Grant, commissioner of the agency’s tax-exempt and government-entities division, recently announced his retirement.
But if the Obama administration thinks that will satisfy a Congress this riled up, it is sorely mistaken. As committee chairman Dave Camp said in his opening statement: “Trimming a few branches will not solved the problem when the roots of the tree have gone rotten.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.