Capitol Hill is awash with bipartisan condemnation of the Internal Revenue Service’s acknowledged targeting of conservative advocacy groups, as lawmakers in both chambers gear up to investigate. They’ll be looking into not only whom to hold accountable, but also what legislative changes are necessary to restore integrity to the tax man that Americans already love to loathe.
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chair of a subcommittee on investigations that has long been concerned about political groups of all stripes using nonprofit status for tax cover, promised to broaden its inquiries into “whether the IRS, to the extent it has enforced its rules, has been impartial in doing so.”
Senator Levin and the subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, released a joint statement Monday saying they would delay a planned hearing on tax-exempt groups to factor in the IRS's recent developments.
Thus far, promises to figure out exactly what happened at the IRS, and under whose watch, amount to Congress’s practical response to the revelations that emerged late last week. Since 2011, the IRS said, employees in its Cincinnati field office targeted hundreds of groups with conservative-sounding names or with particular words like “tea party” in the title for extra scrutiny before allowing the organizations to claim tax-exempt status.
What’s key, lawmakers say, is not just assigning blame: It’s figuring out how to ensure that an agency whose errant behavior raises heady constitutional and political questions actually mends its ways.
“Although I am happy that it has finally admitted to placing politics over policy, the IRS owes conservative groups far more than a mere apology for their unfair treatment. It is crystal clear that additional safeguards are in order to prevent this obtrusive behavior in the future,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio in a statement.
The matter is particularly galling to conservatives on the Hill because House Republicans showed concern over such targeting for more than a year – but had been stonewalled by the IRS until last Friday, when the head of its operations for tax-exempt organizations offered a mea culpa during a speech in Washington, D.C.
House Republicans have been asking the IRS about extra review of conservative nonprofits since at least October 2011, according to documents provided by the House Ways and Means Committee. On four occasions since then, the IRS responded to House GOP requests for information with no reference to targeting of right-leaning organizations.
The IRS gave those reports to Congress even though some senior IRS officials were aware of the practice beginning in June 2011, according to a Reuters report reviewing an as-yet unreleased report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax issues.
That report, in the works for about a year, is expected to be publicly released this week.
The specter of a government agency using its power to affect the political process, coupled with potential disregard for congressional oversight, had members of both parties fuming.
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio called the events a “travesty,” going on to say the IRS’s activity “echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history.”
In a letter to the Treasury secretary, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida called for Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to tender his resignation. President Obama has not offered a permanent replacement head for the IRS since the last permanent head, Douglas Shulman, stepped down at the end of his term last November.
“No government agency that has behaved in such a manner can possibly instill any faith and respect from the American public,” Senator Rubio said in the letter.
Mr. Obama did not hint at any such shake-up in a news conference with reporters alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday. But the president did offer a hefty dose of personal indignation and a promise to take the forthcoming Treasury inspector general’s report to heart in figuring out how to prevent this from happening again.
“I can tell you that if you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous. It is contrary to our traditions. And people have to be held accountable, and it's got to be fixed. So we'll wait and see what exactly all the details and the facts are,” Obama said.
“But I've got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it,” he continued. “And we'll make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this.”