‘We’re not going to get the definitive answers, that’s clear,” Senator Max Baucus said Tuesday, interrupting a witness just minutes into the Senate Finance Committee hearing into the IRS scandal. He was right.
By the end of the day, there were still more questions than answers remaining about the agency’s inappropriate targeting of conservative groups over the past few years. Acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller’s second round of testimony before Congress on Tuesday was a considerably blander affair than last week’s showing at the House Ways and Means Committee. No one even bothered to ask, “Is this still America?” And most of the Democratic members seemed more interested in complaining about Karl Rove than in holding the IRS accountable for its misbehavior or, as Miller called it today, “poor service.”
Perhaps the juiciest revelation was Miller’s admission that it was his idea to offer a preemptive apology by having Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS department at the heart of the scandal, respond to a planted question from a tax lobbyist at a conference earlier this month. “Obviously the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea,” he said.
Shortly after Miller’s mea culpa, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that senior White House officials had also been aware of the issue, the latest development in the administration’s evolving storyline. Lerner, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee, has invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and asked to be excused from the hearing. Miller said that “discussions are ongoing” within the agency regarding possible disciplinary measures against Lerner.
Former IRS commissioner Douglas Schulman also testified, but unlike Miller, he repeatedly refused to apologize or accept any responsibility for the scandal. “I certainly am not personally responsible,” he said. “This happened on my watch, and I very much regret that it happened on my watch.” When members pressed him for an actual apology, Schulman would allow only that he was “deeply, deeply saddened by this whole set of events,” which has “cast a shadow over all of the good work” the IRS does on a daily basis.
Schulman acknowledged that he had been aware that IRS officials processing nonprofit applications were using a list of criteria that included the phrase “Tea Party,” and that the Treasury inspector general was looking into it. “I think it was obvious to me that something didn’t sound right about having a list,” he told members of the committee. But he didn’t think it was necessary to let anyone else know. He said he believed some individuals were fired or disciplined as a result, but didn’t say for sure.
At one point, Senator Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) asked Baucus if the committee might call some witnesses who “actually know the answers” to their questions. Once again, Miller claimed to be unable to recall the name of the IRS employee identified as responsible for the targeting of conservative groups, or what specific action was taken against that individual. “It just seems impossible that we don’t know that answer,” Bennet said.
The third witness to testify, Treasury inspector general J. Russell George, indicated that there is much more to be learned about the scandal. His report, which detailed the results of an “audit,” as opposed to a full investigation, is merely preliminary. “Suffice it to say this matter is not over as far as we are concerned,” George said. “Subsequent action will be taken.” The initial conclusion, as cited by Miller, that the IRS was “not politically motivated in targeting conservative groups,” may crumble upon further scrutiny. As Senator Mike Crapo (R., Idaho) pointed out, the IG’s conclusion to that effect was based on interviews with the IRS employees who had engaged in the inappropriate activity, and their denials of political motivation came in interviews that were not under oath.
The Senate Finance Committee has launched its own investigation, and Baucus and ranking member Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) recently sent a letter to Miller demanding further information and official documents. Republicans also called for Inspector General George to investigate the unauthorized leak of confidential tax documents belonging to conservative groups such as the National Organization for Marriage and Crossroads GPS, which came out of the same division that had targeted conservative groups’ applications.
“This committee is going to pursue this matter wherever it leads,” Hatch said.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.