The IRS is about to get a substantial dose of its own medicine.
Over the next several weeks, if not months, the embattled agency will be forced to answer round after round of probing questions about its inappropriate targeting of conservative groups. The IRS and the Obama administration are likely to plead incompetence — an excuse most taxpayers would readily invoke if they thought it would get them out of an audit. Lawmakers, and Republicans in particular, are unlikely to let them off the hook so easily.
Acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller’s testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on May 17 left congressional investigators with more questions than answers. Sandy Levin, the top Democrat on the committee, says he “wasn’t satisfied.” Meanwhile, the Obama administration has already changed its story on who in the White House knew and when they knew it. Republicans are mulling whether or not a special counsel is needed.
On Monday, the top-ranking members on the Senate Finance Committee wrote a letter to Miller demanding further information about the agency’s activities. The acting commissioner is scheduled to testify before the committee on Tuesday, along with his predecessor Douglas Schulman and Treasury inspector general J. Russell George, who headed the initial investigative report into the targeting operation.
The IG report “raises troubling questions,” wrote Senators Max Baucus (D., Mont.) and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah). “These actions by the IRS appear to be a clear breach of the public’s trust. Targeting groups based on their political views is not only inappropriate but it is also intolerable,” the senators wrote. The agencies’ “lack of candor” and their failure to inform Congress of the targeting were “equally troubling,” the lawmakers added.
The letter included a list of 41 separate requests for information, and a deadline less than two weeks away, making it reminiscent of the requests sent by the IRS to tea-party groups applying for non-profit status, albeit far more relevant and appropriate. (The senators do not, for example, ask Miller to detail the content of his prayers.)
The requests presage what lawmakers are likely to ask witnesses in hearings this week — the House Oversight Committee will also elicit testimony from Schulman, George, IRS director for exempt organizations Lois Lerner, and deputy Treasury secretary Neal Wolin. The queries also reflect just how much more there is to be learned about the scandal, which officially came to light on May 10 but dates back more than three years.
Lawmakers are looking to investigate a number of inconsistencies in the Obama administration’s official explanations regarding the scandal. For instance, they’d like to know how the IRS justified the political targeting beginning in early February 2010. Lois Lerner initially suggested that IRS employees had merely taken inappropriate shortcuts when faced with an overwhelming workload, blaming “a very big uptick” in the numbers of applications for tax-exempt status. However, as the IG report shows, such applications actually declined from FY 2009 to FY 2010.
Congress is also looking to take some names. So far, two IRS officials, including Miller, have agreed to “resign” (both were on the verge of retirement anyway). That probably won’t suffice. Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp last week suggested that “trimming a few branches will not solve the problem when the roots of the tree have gone rotten.” Lawmakers want to know who specifically was involved in the decision to target groups with conservative buzzwords such as “Tea Party” and “patriots” in their names. For now, no one within the IRS will admit to knowing anything about the individuals responsible. Miller told Representative Kevin Brady (R., Texas) last week that he remembered being told about the responsible individuals, but “[didn’t] have names.”
There is also the outstanding issue of the conservative organizations, such as the National Organization for Marriage and Crossroads GPS, who had their confidential donor information leaked to the press in 2012. Miller said the potentially unlawful disclosures were “inadvertent,” but that claim will be subject to congressional scrutiny. According to Miller, the individuals responsible were disciplined accordingly; then again, he couldn’t remember their names. Democratic congressmen, including Max Baucus and Sandy Levin, may ultimately have some questions to answer themselves, as they once urged the IRS to apply extra scrutiny to conservative groups.
Furthermore, White House officials are going to be pressed for a clearer account of when they first heard of the IG report and its findings, and why they didn’t immediately inform President Obama. Jay Carney said Monday that White House chief counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was informed of the report’s findings on April 24, after which others were told, including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, but not the president. Carney’s account appears to have changed since last week, when he told reporters that senior White House officials had been informed of the existence of the report, but not of its contents.
President Obama’s approval rating may not have suffered from the series of scandals facing the White House — yet. But his administration still has a lot of explaining to do.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.