WASHINGTON—Trying to provide cover for the White House, the outgoing acting Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commissioner argued Friday that politics are not behind the government agency’s controversial actions toward conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
“I do not believe that partisanship motivated the practices of the people,” said Steven Miller at a House committee hearing on the scandal. “I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people who were trying to be efficient in their work.”
The Treasury Department’s inspector general overseeing tax administration, J. Russell George, told the House Ways and Means Committee an investigation is ongoing to determine if political pressure is behind the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. A report released this week by George’s office did cite the IRS for unfairly singling out Tea Party and other conservative groups.
When grilled by lawmakers during Friday’s hearing, Miller, who announced this week he would resign from the IRS, kept failing back on three responses:
“I don’t remember.”
“I’m not going to be able to answer with particularity there.”
“I don’t remember the name of who was responsible.”
But Republican lawmakers were more than happy to provide some details.
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, slammed a thick three-ring binder on his desk in the hearing room, saying it represented just part of the documentation that one Ohio-based conservative group was forced to submit, under threat of perjury, to the IRS. Tiberi said the IRS asked that group 94 questions and sub-questions, ranging from copies of all activities on Facebook and Twitter, resumes of all past and present employees, and if past or present employees or their family members had plans to run for public office. Tiberi said some conservative groups based in Ohio, a key battleground state in presidential elections, had to wait two years to get their applications for tax-exempt status approved by the IRS. One group, he said, is still waiting after three years.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Tiberi said after recounting how the IRS told one conservative group to submit a list of all the books its members had read along with book reports on what the books said. “I don’t know how you can defend any of this.”
Miller, trying to set up a firewall between the IRS and the rest of the Obama administration, replied, “We provided horrible customer service here. I will admit that. We did horrible customer service. Whether it was politically motivated or not is a very different question.”
At one point Miller said he had notes of a phone conversation he had regarding how to disclose these IRS practices. But then he quickly said he didn’t know the location of those notes.
Lawmakers at Friday’s hearing wanted to know how confidential information given to the IRS ended up in the hands of other government agencies.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, recounted how a small businesswoman from his state tried to start a Tea Party group in 2010. Three years later, her IRS tax-exempt application is still pending. But since submitting it, she has been visited by the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit and faced inquiries by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a commission on environmental quality. Her personal and business tax returns were also audited, Brady said, despite never having been audited before applying to start a Tea Party group.
“Is this still America?” Brady asked. “Is this government so drunk on power that it would turn its full force, its full might to harass, intimidate, and threaten an average American who only wants her voice and their voices to be heard?”
Miller repeatedly said he would take exception to the word “targeting,” calling it a “loaded term.” When asked what the IRS needed to stop these abuses, part of Miller’s answer included asking for a bigger budget.
Democrats at Friday’s hearing juggled four objectives: condemning the actions of the IRS, warning Republican lawmakers to not turn this into an election issue, reminding that some involved were at the IRS during George W. Bush’s presidency, and insisting that the Obama administration had nothing to do with the actions.
Meanwhile, Republicans argued that the long delays in getting tax-exempt applications processed and the cost in complying with the IRS’s requests stunted and, in some cases, killed the efforts of individuals trying to start conservative groups. Republicans also expressed mystification over the fact that the person overseeing the IRS department at the center of this targeting scandal has been promoted to head the IRS’s Obamacare office.
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., pressed Miller on the disclosure of a 2008 confidential donor list belonging to the National Organization for Marriage. Miller called the leak “inadvertent” and claimed that the person behind it had been disciplined for not following procedures. NOM has announced it will sue the IRS over the incident.
Camp, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, called the actions of the IRS just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups and political intimidation in the Obama administration.
“This systemic abuse cannot be fixed with just one resignation,” Camp said. “And, as much as I expect more people need to go, the reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive, and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers.”